So what about Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari? Little known outside academic and avant-garde circles, they had significant influence on some leftist movements in the 1970’s and the electronic music scene in the 1990’s. They later became popular in the academy; their ideas decorating many a professor’s Curriculum Vitae. Unlike Lévy, Bernard Lewis or David Starkey, they don’t serenade the rich and the powerful, so what is the source of their success? Is it the profundity of their insights? Or do they appeal to different tastes; to an audience, perhaps, that is more hip and counter-cultural…
It is over twenty years since I read their two main works, Anti-Oedipus and A Thousand Plateaus, so my memories are a little shaky. However, Adam Shatz’s review of a new biography has pulled out some potsherds from that disused well. Enough I think to form an opinion.
At the time they were seen as revolutionaries. But for me they seemed rather mainstream: more Bill Bernbach than Antonio Gramsci. Still new to Britain they were believed to be radicals; extremists even, overthrowing… everything! Just like the corporations I watched on TV, and walked past in the High Street on my way to the faculty seminar. Was this a left wing critique? It seemed very odd to me. There did appear an influence behind their work, but it was not the classics of the left-Marxist or non-Marxist left.[i] Instead it was the new kind of flexible manufacturing, and the rampant consumerism associated with it, that was then emerging in the West.[ii] They were its celebrants, opposing the older variety, of Fordism, with its bigger batch runs and greater product standardisation, that created the age of “mass man” and “scientific” advertising campaigns, and the monolithic bureaucracies housed in the International style. This was the world of the small boutiques as against the large department stores; the market stall against Carrefour on the edge of town; and the forever new and fresh, as opposed to the stale and comfortably established.[iii]
No one else saw it in quite this way. Certainly not the authors themselves, though they may have come to realise it later.[iv] Like many intellectuals they tacitly accepted the assumptions that underpinned the society; their analysis too influenced by its surface phenomena; and thus the tendency to absorb too many of those underlying principles, and the values associated with them.[v] The reason is a simple one. Intellectuals, as Noam Chomsky has shown, are the most socially conditioned members of the culture, being both the most passionate advocates of its propaganda, and its chief victims. And this is almost inevitable; for through a long academic training and cultural conditioning they will become, to use Harold Rosenberg’s felicitous phrase, “a herd of independent minds”. The reasons are obvious, once you think about them: they absorb many more of the society’s messages, through their educational development and their daily interaction with the cultural sphere; overwhelmingly liberal-conservative, and attached to the establishment. Few can escape.[vi] Within this relatively narrow world there will be disputes and conflict, and there will intellectual movements and competing theories. There is not one party line; though there are many who would like it to be so.[vii] However, the boundaries of debate are not particularly expansive, they are more St James’s Park than Hampstead Heath, and become even narrower when employed by the corporate media. In this limited sense Deleuze and Guattari were indeed radicals. They were rebelling against the strict orthodoxy of French intellectual life; the Protestant and Catholic churches of Freudianism and Marxism. But it is a small world, and, if we are honest with ourselves, a rather old-fashioned one. Shatz comments on the revolutionary intent of the philosopher Gilles Deleuze:
In his writing, he had long been waging a playful but determined battle against the foundational concepts of Western philosophy: identity, metaphysical transcendence, the distinction between subject and object…
It is difficult to know what to make of this. In a previous post I covered in some detail David’s Hume’s scepticism about a fixed identity; and mentioned the non-rational solutions proposed by Kant and Schopenhauer.[viii] We would hardly call them radicals now; though they were at the time.[ix] Hume is justly famous for his abuse of metaphysics; it is the two or three things people know about him; including his irrationalism: that reason cannot ground itself, but comes from the passions. The subject-object distinction is too complex to go into now; but one wonders about Deleuze’s originality even here... It all has a whiff of something… I’m on my knees and elbows and I’m crawling around. Sniff, sniff. There’s a smell from behind the sofa… Sniff sniff sniff. I think I’ve found it! It’s an old corpse; its few bones covered in rags and centuries of dust... Is our friendly philosopher still in a fistfight with René Descartes? Although floored by Locke and knocked out by Hume he made a comeback in the 20th century: Bertrand Russell once noted that Cartesian dualism was still alive, struggling on the ropes amongst Marxists and Catholics.[x] The boundaries of debate are even smaller than we first realised: less St James’s Park, than the playground inside it; not so much an argument within French thought as between two of its camps. One wonders if Deleuze ever crossed the channel. Physically it would have been difficult for him to do so, because of ill-health, but mentally, did he ever get to Dover’s white cliffs?[xi]
This is an intellectual debate within in one country: France. In general, European societies have had stronger bulwarks against the aggressive state capitalism that has conquered the United States. In Britain, always weaker than its continental counterparts, we have seen, over the last 30 years, its own defences steadily crumble; with the professions hollowed out, and the tension between ethos and commerce relaxed in favour of profit and personal aggrandizement.[xii] In France, these protective institutions and cultural codes have been more resistant; which no doubt accounts for the aggressive anti-French rhetoric of Sarkozy; and the support of figures like Dominique Moisy, analysed in a previous post. They want France to be more like the United States, with its dynamism, its power; and its greater rewards for the ruling elites.[xiii] The originality of Deleuze and Guattari is that they got there first; and gave it an anti-capitalist spin. Of course, they didn’t see it like this; in part because they weren’t interested in the empirical realities;[xiv] an almost pre-requisite for entry into the intelligentsia, where “theory” too often trumps fact.[xv] Like many people in the Sixties, it was particularly acute amongst fashionable commentators in the media, they mistook a new form of capitalism, and its social effects, for its alternative. This is not surprising, for to achieve real insight you have to go beyond the conventional wisdom; the received ideas of intellectual fashion. This is often hard to do; for the reasons previously mentioned – you live and breathe the established values every day.[xvi] Orwell’s Big Brother and his ideas about thought control in 1984 were always a caricature of the Soviet Union; but a minor theme was its satire on English intellectuals; and here it is much more acute.[xvii] By far the most indoctrinated in any society the intelligentsia are saturated by the ideas of their culture, which to a large extent controls them. Their views are dominated by the opinions of others, which forms a sort of ideological climate; which is supported by a series of little sisters: the press, the university authorities; and one’s friends and colleagues; the latter influence often the most powerful.[xviii] This culture imposes particularly stringent demands on the “intellectual elite”, resulting in a widespread conformity; so noticeable to those outside it. The result is that much of a society's cultural life is simply the shuffling of a limited number of pre-existing concepts; which are either put into new patterns, or their values changed (what was good yesterday becomes bad today).[xix] This can be useful, and sometimes it can have real power. Most of the time though, by staying on the level of concepts, by never really analysing or investigating them, the assumptions on which they rest are not challenged, they are simply accepted, and nothing of originality, or importance, is produced.[xx] And life goes on, with little alteration. This, I think, is what happened here: the intellectual mosaic of French ideological life was being reshuffled to give slightly different shapes. Later, what was a quarrel within France’s intelligentsia became universalised; in part perhaps because it both reduced the Marxism and retained the counter-cultural radicalism; echoing the wider shift into lifestyle politics that occurred in the 1970s, with its irrationalism and mysticism. Shatz’s conclusion picks this up:
It seems that the further their ideas have travelled from their roots on the far left, the more they have been incorporated by the system they opposed. Indeed, the language of desire, multiplicity and all the rest is no longer the language of revolution. It is the language of cyberspace, and of neoliberal capitalism. Deleuze and Guattari’s desiring machines, constantly seeking out new sensations, look a lot like today’s permanently distracted consumers and websurfers. François Dosse is keen to portray his subjects as visionaries, but they anticipated a future neither of them would have wanted to live in.
I don’t think this quite captures what was going on. Capitalism hasn’t changed that much. Its essential ingredients have been around for nearly 300 years.[xxi] Over these centuries the cumulative effect of capitalist development has gradually altered the culture; though it is not a simple line of continual advance: for about a century there was a progressive taming of its rapaciousness; with many benefits for particularly the West’s citizens. In the last fifty years, through changes in technology, the financialisation of the economy,[xxii] and a weakening of the old establishments,[xxiii] it has reasserted its power; affecting greater parts of people’s lives. Its essential nature, though, is the same; only the details, and its reach, are different. Deleuze and Guattari were writing at the start of its latest phase. Their books reflect the impact of the new consumer capitalism, as it hit the Normandy fortresses of French social and cultural life. So in this respect I think Shatz is not altogether correct. They were prophets of the future, albeit poor ones, for they misread the signs; and then jumped on the wrong bus. They wanted rid of the old France, and, conventional thinkers that they were, they accepted, without too much thought, the new capitalist world that was being formed around them as its revolutionary replacement.[xxiv] Not grasping the fundamentals, their ideas were confused and they placed the wrong values on them. Thus, instead of attacking capitalism, they became its biggest champions.
The review gives some examples of Guattari’s character at the time Anti-Oedipus was written: non-stop, almost manic, activity; obsessive womanizing; an inability to settle to do any prolonged work… To slow him down his friends suggested he collaborate with Deleuze. How odd! For it appears that his experience (Deleuze called Guattari his "diamond miner") was used as the material for the book’s ideas. His problem, which the writing of the book is supposed to cure, then becomes the solution to all our ills! Shouldn’t we draw the exactly opposite conclusion?
I suffered a lot when studying these two thinkers; and others like them. I was bewildered. I found it hard to accept the substantial differences between their ideas – effectively no fixed values, all flux and flow – and the working practices of the university that taught them. They were being celebrated, but life was contradicting them at almost every turn; yet few seemed to notice. It became even more disorientating when marks were dutifully awarded for essays written on this material... I spent many months thinking about this discrepancy. Why study social thinkers who appear alien to our lived reality; and who oppose almost completely the institution in which they are taught? For if these ideas were truly accepted the academy would have to go. Of course thinkers are studied for all sorts of reasons; some purely for their historical context.[xxv] But more seemed to be at issue here: they weren’t describing a reality so much as advocating a new way of life. And that advocacy was the real content of the work. However, this wasn’t viewed as important; while few attempts were made to deal with the truth-value of their claims; often they were simply accepted as an accurate description of the world. There appeared to be, and in fact there was, a disconnect between the lives of the professors and the ideas they espoused. Celebrating our infinite, and multi-various, desires they would calmly calve the roast every Sunday. Advocating libidinal excess and nomadic wandering they spent nearly all of the year quietly in large suburban mansions… It slowly dawned on me that there was little or no content to what they thought. That the truth or otherwise of these ideas simply didn’t matter at all. It was just an intellectual exercise, divorced from the lived experience. It was something of a shock; and I don’t think I’ve ever fully recovered from it. Of course I know this truth now.[xxvi] It was a revelation then.[xxvii]
There is a deeper point to be made.[xxviii] Theorists like this, because they only float over the surface, don’t really engage with the life as it is actually lived;[xxix] and therefore do not properly understand it. They turn our daily experiences into a sort of ideas factory; where the hard facts are simply the extraneous waste material, that’s thrown in the bin. Nothing matters except the manufacture of the most intricate theories and startling paradoxes. This was one of the concerns of David Hume, when he wrote against the sceptics. He wanted to understand reality, not deny or avoid it; which he thought all too easy and misguided; and very common amongst intellectuals. However, once he started along that road he realised it would have no end: there is so much we don’t, and may never, know. This inability to fully grasp the world may in part account for his subsequent depression;[xxx] Russell seems to have undergone something similar, when the realised life’s complexity was beyond him.[xxxi] Recognising this limitation was a great humility; and what Hume (and Locke) should be remembered for above all else, perhaps. It is a crucial insight: we have to live with that tension, between the little we know, and the lot we don’t; and we have to make some sense of it; continually redrawing the boundaries between the two, as knowledge progresses.[xxxii] Unfortunately, intellectuals often avoid these difficulties; wanting certainty they jump over all the obstacles into wild flights of fancy; total scepticism; or obscure metaphysics.[xxxiii] Deleuze and Guattari’s work contains all of these strategies. There is also something of the guru about them; or at least there is with Deleuze.[xxxiv] A Humean strategy accepts we know little and are full of doubts. Such modesty is not usual amongst (particularly popular or second rate) thinkers; latter day priests they want authority, indeed part of their legitimacy depends upon it.[xxxv] This is reflected in the wider society where people have often looked to them for all the answers; and which may be worse in France because of the cult of the intellectual celebrity. Such omniscience is impossible today, as specialisation increases by the hour. Deleuze and Guattari, and other French intellectual stars of the 1960s, appeared to find a way out of this dilemma: they became magpies picking up titbits from every discipline.
These texts touch on a great variety of subjects: Gödel’s theorem, the theory of transfinite cardinals, Riemannian geometry, quantum mechanics… But the allusions are so brief and superficial that a reader who is not already an expert in these subjects will be unable to learn anything concrete. And a specialist reader will find their statements most often meaningless, or sometimes acceptable but banal and confused.[xxxvi]
Both Locke and Schopenhauer showed what happens when we are governed by the will (the new term is desire – how old fashioned everything is!).[xxxvii] For Locke we are dominated by uneasiness, the will’s propulsion to be always on the go, and which affects us mentally - our minds never stop, full as they are of fleeting thoughts and impressions. Our one chance of liberty, which he equates with happiness, is to halt that constant flow by paying attention to our thoughts for extended moments. This allows us to absorb impressions more deeply; strengthening their impact, so they stay longer in our consciousness[xxxviii] increasing the possibilities of creative insight, as we combine them with other ideas, and think about them more critically. Locke had noticed a problem in our lives, and he offered a precarious solution. Schopenhauer was dominated by the question of the will and offered a more extreme and problematic answer – the ascetic’s life. In contrast Deleuze and Guattari want to remove all difficulties by embracing the problem as the solution, to all our ills. They want to remove our minds, and jump into the stream of pure unconsciousness.[xxxix] To paraphrase Bertrand Russell: it is only very learned academics who can believe such obvious nonsense.
The review covers some of the good things they did. They were true radicals, and had the values of decency; with Guattari in particular becoming a refuge for the exiled and dispossessed. Their hearts were in the right place, and they did some good work; but is this really the model of society we should aspire to:
(To help the patients combat the power structures at the La Borde clinic) He devoted himself to fomenting unrest, assigning staff members to tasks for which they weren’t trained – ‘Félix really liked to declassify people’, as one of them put it. Employees slept till noon, ‘denouncing everyone who was already at work as alienated by capitalism’.
But the doctors didn’t appreciate doing the dishes, and the maids weren’t comfortable providing treatment. Staff members were put under further strain when Guattari organised ‘erotic kamikazes’ to break up couples who grew too close (monogamy was a ‘capitalist’ perversion)…
What a tyrant! Imagine a CEO asking you to change jobs immediately; and perform tasks for which you have no experience or expertise, and which you have no idea how to do. Imagine if that job requires difficult decisions, which are life threatening. Guattari goes way beyond that. He comes home, screws your wife, and tells you to find somebody else, now! You protest. He calls you a Fascist ‘desiring machine’! and your wife agrees. She has discovered the truth at last. You’re angry, but confused by the phrase… time enough to get you outside the door… Shatz writes that they didn’t tell people what to think; a break from the usual practice of the French mandarin class. I’m not so sure. Their books are advocacy, not exploration, while this example suggests an authoritarian cast of mind. Hippies can be dictators too.[xl] There is little doubt that these are the actions of an autocrat inflicting his own personality onto everyone else. For what the ‘philosophy of desire’ overlooks is the power of the individual human being; their enormous ability to control and destroy other people. The father, the cult leader, the bullying boss can wreck a life just by exercising their powerful personalities; they don’t need a multi-national corporation or government department to help them. One reason to have institutions is to protect us against the group and the strong individual. We need laws, and marriage, and public bureaucracies, to protect ourselves against people like Félix Guattari![xli]
Intellectuals in their natural habitat are relatively harmless, but once out in society they can be a dangerous influence. For there is a totalitarian streak inherent in most of them: the certainty of their ideas. This is fine in the academy, but very risky when outside in the wider community. Guattari at La Borde is a good example: he tries to squeeze the staff inside the strait jacket of his own thought. Ideas. They are abstractions from a rich and complex, and living world. In many fields they can attain their own depth and complexity; and have extraordinary explanatory power. But when it comes to social life no matter how sophisticated the theory it can only be an impoverished copy. They can help make life better, in part by acting as inspiration, but only rarely can they be adopted wholesale. And this not the only problem. Too often ideas are used as weapons of attack, rather than for true understanding; and this is particularly so in politics, where the simple formula is regularly used to destroy an opponent; like a tank it rolls over the live body of real life as it blasts away with its questionable facts and its internal consistency. When applied in their pure form the grand theory results in Stalin’s collectivisation, Mao’s Great Famine, and the social and economic firestorm that wrecked post-Soviet society. In a rational world, life should be informed by ideas, which in turn moulds and softens them; making them work in a humane way. Deleuze and Guattari, like so many utopian thinkers, want to jump over this divide between the idea and the experience, and construct a purely conceptual universe. This is the totalitarian element in their thought. In their case the rich diversity of thoughts and action, of houses and shops, museums and universities, all the things that help make life interesting, is to be destroyed.[xlii] We will live in tents, wild and free, doing what ever we want to do, when we want to do it. That is, we will be at the mercy of something very big and very powerful.
In the same issue of the LRB Jenny Diski reviews the Keith Richards’ autobiography. Rock stars, because of their wealth and charisma, are the ultimate "desiring machines". They can have nearly everything they want: “chicks”, “smack”, “shooters” and “pads”; and even the ear of prime ministers.[xliii] What happens in this world? It is worth quoting Diski at length, because it shows the consequences of desire set free.
Before the settling down, though, back in 1973, while Richards was in London, Anita Pallenberg was living in Jamaica with Marlon aged four and Angela a year old, when she was arrested. The police left the children alone in the house,
My immediate reaction was to take the first flight back to Jamaica. But I was persuaded that it was better to put the pressure on from London. If I’d gone there they’d have probably arrested me too. The brothers and sisters had taken up the kids and whisked them up to Steer Town before the authorities had thought, ‘What are we gonna do about these two children?’ And they lived up there while Anita was in jail, and the Rastas took perfect care of them. And that was very important to me.
Angela, aged five, went to live with her paternal grandfather in Dartford after the new baby boy, Tara, died in a cot death at two months, while in the care of the increasingly paranoid and addicted Pallenberg. Marlon, seven at the time, was with his father, touring Europe as Richards’s’ ‘road buddy’. It was his job to warn him of upcoming border posts to so that the drugs could be dumped, and to keep nudging his father when he dropped off at the wheel. They only crashed once. He acted, Richards says, ‘beyond his age’. It was also Marlon’s job to wake the comatose Richards when it was getting time to play a gig. The rest of the entourage entrusted this task to the boy because Richards always slept with a gun under his pillow and they reckoned he was least likely to shoot Marlon if enraged.
Living with his mother back in London wasn’t easy either. Her teenage boyfriend killed himself while playing Russian roulette in the bedroom, and although Marlon witnessed the aftermath, he says: ‘He kept telling me – a really nasty kid – he kept saying he was going to shoot Keith, and that upset me, so I was kind of relieved when he shot himself.’
Somehow the boy survived. But how many were the casualties? In practice, of course, desire really means selfishness; of the worst kind. Do whatever you like, but don’t worry about the consequences, because someone else will find the body bags or call the ambulance. Felix and Jules can persuade everyone to let it all hang out, and leave the families (and the authorities) to deal with the consequences. Meanwhile they write their books in comfy studies, and collect their government salaries.[xliv] This is not the way to either understand or transform the world.
The title of this piece comes from a Captain Beefheart song. Don Van Vliet, like his old friend Frank Zappa, were true originals; and part of the authentic counter culture of the 1960s, just like Noam Chomsky,[xlv] but unlike the Rolling Stones, who, as Jenny Diski writes, were always part of the corporate world – their bad boy image was manufactured for commercial reasons. In his music, just like that of The Mothers of Invention, there are plenty of absurdities, mucking around, and wordplay; and it is all absolutely legitimate. The question is always: does it work musically; and here people will disagree. Now some of that music, particularly Zappa’s satire, can help us appreciate social concerns that are wider than the songs themselves: We’re Only In It For The Money with its attack on fake hippies helps us see their equivalent in the university today. However, none of their records are a substitute for a real understanding of American society: of how it became a consumerist superpower pounding a poor country into the dark ages. For that we have to turn to historical and political analysis. We have to get the books out, and put the records away.
Deleuze and Guattari would like to be the Beefheart and Zappa of the academic world; instead they are its Mick and Keith; their mangled version of Street Fighting Man occasionally enlivening the senior common room. That’s perfectly OK if we want entertainment. However, we must not kid ourselves it is anything more than that; that it is anything more than a poor copy of goods we can acquire quite easily in the high street; and which can be enjoyed with far greater pleasure.
[iii] “The actualisation of a revolutionary potentiality is explained less by the pre-conscious state of causality in which it is nonetheless included, than by the efficacy of a libidinal streak at a precise moment, a schiz whose sole cause is desire – which is to say the rupture with causality that forces a rewriting of history on a level with the real, and produces this strangely polyvocal moment when everything is possible… Of course one can always say after the fact that history never ceased being governed by the same laws of aggregates and large numbers…” (Anti-Oedipus. My emphasis)
There are people who like this kind of thing. Jonathan Rée, in the New Left Review, called them “seductive in a perverse way”, and you can understand why (number 211). It appears to say a lot, in a sophisticated sort of academic jive talk; that straddles both the counter-culture and the academy. It appears to be saying something deep, but its language is loose, where the tone often makes up for sense.
Like avant-garde literary prose you can get a feel for what is being said; but as a work of serious intellectual substance it is weak. For example: what exactly is “a rupture with causality”? It’s a remarkable statement, but one wonders how it could be possibly true – for example, does the “libidinal streak” just pop out of a vacuum? But note, even the authors have doubts; thus the earlier references to causality’s “pre-conscious state”, which qualifies it.
Understanding is also complicated by the use of different registers; technical terms mixed up with literary language, Artaud with Kant, and with no attempt to separate out the different truth claims between them (I Believe in Pavements has more on this particular problem). Instead, a factual statement will be made in one sentence, only to be transformed into a metaphor in another. The trick is that we are never quite sure which is which; and thus there is a simple defence to any criticism: no causality? we were just fooling around.
We could talk about how new movements emerge, old empires fall; the dynamite of particular social situations; and we could always side with the new and radical just as it is emerging. However, this language doesn’t come across as so profound; and neither does it cover all the academic bases – philosophy, psychology, art, science etc etc. For the authors want a total explanation, that covers all subject areas. Though a strange goal, it has to be said, for irrational anarchists, who believe in the “polyvocal moment when everything is possible”.
[iv] Their last book What is Philosophy? seems a pessimistic tome, by all accounts (see Rée’s review, mentioned above).
The book contains an attack on the concepteurs, French marketing executives, who had illegitimately, in the view of Deleuze and Guattari, appropriated the word concept; which should, they thought, be reserved solely for philosophy. Rée comments on the illogicality of this attack. For they now believed that philosophy, like art and science, are self-contained epistemological systems, that can have no relation to each other, or to anything outside themselves; they are simply incommensurate; although if true it repudiates both of their “classic” texts, which are notoriously promiscuous in their couplings of different disciplines (think of Richard Lindner’s Boy and Machine at the very front of Anti-Oedipus). The extreme relativism of this idea is extraordinary. It condemns academics to a life sentence inside their own subject areas; and the rest of us to perpetual incomprehension: we may use the same words, but their meaning will be completely different in different contexts. The only way out would be through arduous and uncertain translation done, no doubt, by sophisticated priest-intellectuals who will transverse the interstices of the various disciplines, and like the Delphic Oracle return with profound but oblique messages; such as a Thousand Plateaus, perhaps. However, if this epistemological narcissism is true then advertisers cannot possibly acquire a philosophical concept; instead by its very use it will become something else. In which case, as Rée writes, why worry about it all? It is simply impossible for the ad agencies to trespass onto their territory.
This reasoning, just like the theory itself, says a lot about the quality of their thought; but a more interesting question is why did they get so angry. Let’s speculate. Perhaps the reason they couldn’t ignore this “insult”, was that their theories were a little too close to the thought world and practice of those marketing executives. We could go even further: it was just those agencies who in the 1960s created the images, that virtual world of adverts and the international media, that influenced them in the first place. Here was a debt they were not willing to acknowledge.
[v] See Bryan Magee’s analysis in Russian Climate. Real insight means getting under the surface of things, and requires capacities that are less common than intellectual ability; and its rational manipulation of ideas and arguments.
In his Confessions of a Philosopher Magee writes of the limitations of the Oxford linguistic school; of how they reduced philosophy to intellectual analysis; thus ignoring its real, creative nature, which is to explore not concepts but to penetrate the mysteries of reality itself. It is a view, shared by Bertrand Russell, that is in complete contradiction to Deleuze’s and Guattari’s conception of the subject. It highlights, I think, how conventionally academic they really are; and therefore how susceptible to fashion, in all its guises.
[vi] The unfortunate ones. Think of the treatment of Norman Finkelstein, Israel Shahak, and Tanya Reinhart, to name just a few. Noam Chomsky in a lecture at Brandeis last year talked of how, until relatively recently, he has had to have police protection when giving talks about Israel. Moreover, as Pierre Guerlain shows in The Chomsky Notebook, while widely respected for his work in linguistics and philosophy, he is ignored by “respectable” scholarship when it comes to his politics. Most work on American foreign policy contains no reference to him at all. Few things have changed since the time of Spinoza:
“May he be cursed by day and by night. May God never forgive him. We order that no one have commerce with him by speech or in writing, that no one give him the least sign of friendship or approach him or live under the same roof as he, that no one read a work written or composed by him.” (On his excommunication from the Amsterdam synagogue. Quoted by Tariq Ali in Counterpunch)
[vii] Just a few weeks ago there was an unbelievable piece on Democracy Now!. It showed the cartoon world of Glenn Beck, and his targeting of a little known 78 year old professor; and which amounts, as the responses indicate, to an incitement to murder for those of his audience who are mentally unstable. Beck is pure stand up (except people take him seriously), but these provocations are aired on a major news channel, which in turn is part of a wider network of corporately funded institutes and radio stations, which seeks both to advance corporation power and silence its opposition. It is the return of the Red Scare, and a more sophisticated McCarthyism; and is a symptom of a wider shift to the right in the political class.
[ix] Politically they tended towards the conservative; especially Hume and Schopenhauer. The latter allowed his apartment in Frankfurt to be used by soldiers to fire on protesters in the 1848 revolution.
[xi] There are no references to either Locke or Hume in Anti-Oedipus. In A Thousand Plateaus there is one reference to Hume: in the translator’s forward. There is the same paucity of reference to Descartes; but this may be for other reasons: their thought is saturated with his influence, for it is part of the culture they inhabit; and which they are fighting against. Think a little more closely about their "desiring machines". This has a striking resonance with the mechanical worldview associated with Cartesian thought. This, together with the other evidence, does suggest that the “foundational concepts of Western philosophy” really are the ideas of this French rationalist mixed up with their native traditions; and they appear to have absorbed these concepts to such a level, that it is possible they are not even aware of them; and thus the “Catholic” orthodoxy remains; although dressed up in Sixties mini-skirts and tie-dyed t-shirts.
There is an interesting discussion of the machine in relation to early industrial revolution in Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation. Paraphrasing the ideas of Robert Owen he gives what is perhaps the best definition of Socialism that exists: man must be master of the machines he has created. This is still radical, especially today when they are even more powerful, and have global reach – the multi-national corporation is in effect one.
Ah, but you say: you are being too literal; for they are talking philosophically or metaphorically. If that’s the case, we return to Descartes, and his mechanical conception of the world. How valid is it? For a fascinating discussion see Chomsky’s New Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind. Summarising the collapse of this theory, which postulated a free floating mind in a physical machine, following the discoveries of Newton, which showed that a mechanical explanation for the body was no longer possible, Chomsky notes how this left the Cartesian mind untouched: the idea that it was of a different substance remained intact. He notes parallels with the naturalism of today, which takes our consciousness for granted; assuming it will be reduced to our contemporary understanding of matter. His view is that the future will be like the past: if this reduction is to take place our scientific theories of physical reality will once more have to change; and quite substantially.
Let’s go back to Deleuze and Guattari. They need to justify a return to the ideas of the 17th century; and at the same time explain why the ideology of state capitalism, which is to make machines of us all, is its radical alternative. But note the differences between them and Chomsky. The scientific worldview he inhabits is one of forces and energy, organic growth; much complexity and plenty of doubt – ultimately if consciousness can be reduced to matter, we don’t know what matter is. This reflects the metaphors he uses to describe human creativity, many drawn from the Romantic Movement; he is keenly aware of the biological nature of man and its mysteries. Contrast this with Deleuze and Guattari. Chomsky is describing the world as revealed by science, while their thought is conditioned by the technology it has created; which is not reality but is how the corporations would like it to be so.
These differences may also explain something else: Chomsky sees no tension between creative (and political) freedom and scientific laws, because of his understanding of science; its power and its limits. Deleuze and Guattari, driving around in their mechanical theories, have no explanation for these human characteristics; thus their need for some revolutionary eruption, that comes from nowhere; they need magic to explain the world. Chomsky’s philosophical revolution was to resurrect the Cartesian mind, to show that the “ghost” still exists, though the “machine” does not. That is, our consciousness is a different substance, which is still a human mystery. Deleuze and Guattari accept the conventional Cartesian theory, but have a problem with the mind: 300 years of naturalism have said that ghosts do not exist (although, as Chomsky, and Russell in a different context, suggests, nevertheless tacitly accepted). This is their problem, as they try to resolve Descartes with Marx and Freud. Their solution, not surprisingly, given the tension, is to get rid of it; lost to a "schiz" or "libidinal streak".
Though this solution, the radical break, also seems very French and traditional. For discussion of revolution as a national symbol see my earlier post: Revolution. But also think what a "rupture with causality" could also mean: a miracle. Their up to date theories thus appear rather old-fashioned; a mix of 1789 and the Ancient Regime that preceded it. That is, they are suffused with an intellectual and ideological culture, which has not been properly thought through and criticised. For further comment see xx below.
[xii] An excellent article in the NYRB shows both the progress and the effects of the corporatization of American and British universities. In America it’s the removal of security and high wages for a majority of the teaching staff; in Britain it is the imposition of corporate accounting techniques, also used across the public sector, to discipline and control academic output. Independence is being lost to a management class; which follows the ideology of corporate business. And what is the nature of that ideology? For all the propaganda and mythology about the free market, and enterprise, it appears to be old-fashioned bureaucracy. We must all become bureaucrats now!
The article also includes some high comedy. In line with the clichés about the creative freedom of the market, one of the criteria for assessing the quality of academic work is its excellence and originality. Not easy things, at the best of times, to assess. However, the assessment procedure, as one would expect, tends to increase conformity; with people playing safe to ensure that the material is acceptable (failure, being the main worry); and there is plenty of it (articles preferred to books; short books preferred to long ones), to increase the rating scores. For like all accounting practices quantity is the easiest thing to measure.
[xiii] Harold Perkins has an excellent book on this, which is a comparative analysis of the elites in the G7. His conclusion is worth quoting at length:
“The world belongs to the whole human race, not just to those who claim to own the means of production, and to the vast diversity of species that support human life. Each generation only borrows it for a while, and if they exploit it beyond reason they can destroy themselves along with a large portion of the biosphere. The third great history in the social revolution of mankind, the revolution of the experts and the creation of professional society, has enabled us to attain a higher plane of existence, with knowledge and power, health and longevity, comforts and enjoyments, the sheer ease and abundance of life – beyond the dreams of any previous generation. All this has been brought about by human ingenuity, in the form of science and technology, intellectual curiosity and artistic creativity, education and innovation – in a word, by human capital.
“The magic key to this cornucopia is professional expertise, yet professionalism is also the major threat to its success. How can we prevent the professional elites, especially those in control of government and production and thus the flows of income, from abusing their power and exploiting their societies to the point of collapse? We cannot shirk, beg, or evade this question. If we do not solve it, it will destroy us and plunge future generations, shrunken perhaps to medieval size, back into the dark ages. The question is, do we want to solve it? Or are we content to let the false prophets of individual greed and un-enlightened self-interest lead us down the primrose path to the everlasting bonfire?” (The Third Revolution: Professional Elites in the Modern World))
[xiv] Or even the content of their own ideas. For extensive discussion of their use of pseudo-scientific language, which is often meaningless, see Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont’s Intellectual Impostures. Apropos Deleuze’s discussion of differential and inferential calculus they say:
“These problems were solved by the work of d’Alembert around 1760 and Cauchy around 1820, who introduced the rigorous notion of limit – a concept that has been taught in all calculus textbooks since the middle of the nineteenth century. Nevertheless, Deleuze launches into a long and confused meditation on these problems…
[after going through various errors, confusions and obscurities they conclude] “What is the point of all these mystifications about mathematical objects that have been well understood for over 150 years?”
Compare with my comments above on Deleuze’s philosophical interest. In both cases there appears to be little knowledge of the field and its history; beyond a surface skimming. This may be the clue to their success: they are fine mimics - of consumerism. Their ideas simply the clothes and household goods we see in the shops and retail parks, and which we buy on impulse, and with little reflection. Deleuze and Guattari, being a somewhat superior brand, are the Selfridges of academia.
It is part of a wider trend. In a devastating review of Saul Bellow’s To Jerusalem and Back Chomsky notes his “engaging ability to skim the surface of ideas”. He continues,
“Like any collection of random shots, some of Bellow’s comments hit near the mark, though there is no internal evidence to determine which. Arguments and evidence are not really his business. In their place, we find snippets from Proust and Baudelaire and Ruskin on Thucydides in a display of world-weary wisdom.” (Towards a New Cold War)
Isn’t this Deleuze and Guattari? Only the tone separates them. Contrast this with Chomsky himself: highly original in a number of fields, in large part because he has mastered them; and which he has transformed in the process. What Chomsky’s review shows is that Bellow, all protestations to the contrary, follows the conventional wisdom; he simply repeats the old clichés; in his case about Israel. Putting aside all prejudices and ideological bias one reason for this is the superficial nature of the inquiry: because a topic is not explored in any depth it cannot be meaningfully original or profound; for neither its assumptions nor core detail is touched. To achieve this profundity there has to be a thorough grasp of the subject; with insights that go beyond it, but that can, crucially, be justified within the discipline itself. The alternative is to produce striking apercus and flights of fancy, where ideas from different fields are bolted together like pieces of Meccano. It looks startling, but each part, that is each idea, has no life behind it – because they have not been thought through within their original context; they are just someone else’s work that has been borrowed for another, quite different, purpose. Or, as Sokal and Bricmont show, they are full of the most basic mistakes (because the complexity of the subject is not understood). A mistake can be original, especially if it hasn’t been around for 150 years, but this has little to do with serious intellectual inquiry; rather it copies the working practices of the shopping mall, where the truth or falsity of a product is irrelevant to its commercial appeal. We see something of this in our duo’s treatment of Chomsky himself in A Thousand Plateaus.
“…Principles of connection and heterogeneity: any point of a rhizome can be connected to anything other, and must be. This is very different from the tree or root, which plots a point, fixes an order. The linguistic tree on the Chomsky model still begins at a point S and proceeds by dichotomy. On the contrary, not every trait in a rhizome is necessarily linked to a linguistic feature: semiotic chains of every nature to very diverse codes of coding (biological, political, economic etc.) that bring into play not only different signs but also states of things of differing status. Collective assemblages of enunciation function directly within machinic assemblages; it is not impossible to make a radical break between signs and their objects. Even when linguistics claims to confine itself to what is explicit and to make no presuppositions about language, it is still in the sphere of discourse implying particular modes of assemblage and types of social power. Chomsky’s grammaticality, the categorical S symbol that dominates every sentence, is more fundamentally a marker of power than a syntactic marker: you will construct grammaticality correct sentences, you will divide each statement into a noun phrase and a verb phrase (first dichotomy…). Our criticism of these linguistic models is not that they are too abstract but, on the contrary, that they are not abstract enough, that they do not reach the abstract machine that connects a language to the semantic and pragmatic contents of statements, to collective assemblages of enunciation, to a whole micropolitics of the social field.”
The first thing one notices is the level of abstraction – everything is talked about in a general way. The result, because there is very little concrete detail, is that it becomes merely opinion. I prefer the rhizome to the tree! In the same way you would cheer different political parties or football teams (how odd for thinkers who want multiplicity – they should be for both the tree and the rhizome). There is no attempt to systematically engage with Chomsky at all. Everyone’s entitled to their opinion, of course; where would life be without it? However, it is a serious mistake to conflate opinions with real knowledge. Chomsky’s work is an attempt to understand how language works; which involves highly abstract and technical models, which isolate various elements of its use to study them in great depth. Like the hard sciences it attempts to reduce its material of study to its simplest components in order to provide powerful explanatory theories about them. Bring in the world (politics, economics etc) and any chance of a rigorous investigation disappears. Deleuze and Guattari seem unable to understand this; thus their comment about the lack of inclusiveness in his work; or as they put it, he is “not abstract enough”. Imagine if in order to understand Einstein’s theories you could only do so by relating them to the socio-economic environment in which they were produced. The atom has to be connected to the politician’s speech… It is ludicrous, of course. And it’s the kind of thing you can imagine yourself saying when you are 19. There are perhaps more abstract theories – the general laws of physics - but could the work of Penrose or Hawking really explain why Napoleon invaded Russia? No theory is “abstract enough” if you look at it from a particular point of view; while much too much abstraction explains nothing at all.
But on the level of opinion one wonders how much they know and understand. Chomsky is interested in language, but also recognises its limits – eg the degree to which our thinking doesn’t use linguistic materials. The originality of Chomsky’s thought is to show how our language processes are outside our conscious awareness; they are “irrational” in the sense they are biological mechanisms; which we yet don’t understand. Far from his thought reducing everything to language (I assume the meaning of, “not every trait in a rhizome is necessarily linked to a linguistic feature”, and the following sentences. But note the looseness in their terminology: do they mean ordinary language or the technical language of linguistics?), Chomsky is looking for the mechanisms which produce it; thus his use, and adaptation of, mathematical theory to natural languages (See John Lyons’ Chomsky). Later in the book they write of how they prefer Labov to Chomsky; which I assume means they prefer socio-linguistics to the study of processes of language creation itself. That’s fine as a preference (but note the dualism, which they constantly attack. Clearly logical consistency is not one of their strengths); each person will study the subject area in which they are most comfortable. However, the study of one does not preclude the other (See Chomsky’s own comments in New Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind). But the idea you can study everything, and have some theory, which has any depth, to explain it, is absurd. It is the existential cry of the 20th century intellectual, who can no longer master all of knowledge (See the contributions in J.H. Plumb’s Crisis in the Humanities for a discussion in the early Sixties). Indeed, Deleuze and Guattari themselves demonstrate its nonsense, by equating a technical sign as a “marker of power”. That is, all mathematical or technical terms, in fact all symbolic markers or rules, must be expressions of power urges. Thus in the game of chess the rule that the king can only move one square at a time, except when castling, is a sign of coercion and control. Just like the decision of Bush and Cheney to invade Iraq… This is the solution to that existential despair: a simple theory, with no content, that can explain all phenomena. But if all is power, we then have to explain the differences between its various levels; between a game and real life and death decisions. And this was recognised centuries ago. Here is John Locke:
“The great question in all ages which has disturbed mankind… has been, not whether there be power in the world, nor from whence it came, but who should have it.” (See David Wootton’s introduction to John Locke: Political Writings)
It also reminds me of Locke in another way; when he criticised the schoolman for arguing about words; rather than substantive things. With the growth of academic specialisation, and its insulation from the general public, we seem to have returned to the old scholasticism. For Deleuze and Guattari are great(?!) manipulators of words without content; or more accurately, perhaps, I should say they are virtuosos of jargon.
“Since everybody knows that language is a heterogeneous, variable reality, what is the meaning of the linguists’ insistence on carving out a homogenous system to make a scientific study possible?… But the scientific model taking language as an object of study is one with the political model by which language is homogenised, centralized, standardized, becoming a language of power, a major or dominant language.”
Those who fear science. This is the audience they are playing to; but unfortunately confuse themselves as well as their followers. “Everybody knows” from their own experience that the earth is flat and doesn’t move... Over the last 500 years science has demonstrated that our commonsense understanding of the world is wrong. Deleuze and Guattari, it seems, playing the populist card, want to rewind the clock back – to Aquinas? If only it was so easy. Intellectually they are unable to do so, for the reasons previously stated; instead they try to do it politically, by attacking the theories with opinion; like vitriolic newspaper columnists. The overriding impression is of a poor understanding of what they criticise. For example, Chomsky would be the last person to say that there are no different languages; instead he draws a distinction between the surface heterogeneity and the consistent principles that underlie them. In no way does it follow that if the biological mechanism is the same the outcome will be so: no one doubts all humans grow in the same way, and that unless there is some development malfunction we mature with arms and legs, and a fully functioning brain. I assume no one also doubts that even though the biological processes are identical all human beings are different. What Deleuze and Guattari have done is to collapse two levels of analysis into one. One wonders if they have mistaken Chomsky’s Generative Grammar, which looks to explicate the principles of language, with the prescriptive rules of traditional grammar, which insist on set rules of how language should be written or spoken. An incredible mistake, and which indeed seems to be the case. Even more so, when we know that for Chomsky the finite rules that govern the underlying principles produce an infinite variety of sentences; the exact opposite of the quoted assertion. The mistakes and questionable interpretations seem almost endless: eg. is there a single political model, and it speaks only the language of centralization and power? If so, their political ideas must be exactly the same as Erich Honecker’s (and they might be, but not in the way they believe – see my later comments in the main essay). The only way out is to be against all politics, a position common amongst artists and intellectuals; particularly those of the radical right (Energy has more discussion). The more one reads the more we wonder if there are any pages in their work that don’t have an error.
Their big idea appears to be the rhizome; where everything is connected to everything else, because “it must be”. One assumes it’s a metaphor for what in the earlier book was called the “libidinal streak” or “desire”. It reminds me of Schopenhauer’s the will; but with a crucial difference: for Schopenhauer the will was metaphysical, its amorphousness underling a reality, which it generates. It is not in our phenomenal world, which is governed by laws and ordered into structure; and which can be altered, but only within certain limits; some of which we know. However, there are, within our present day world, things that correspond to this will: money, the media and the art collage. And increasingly, with the financialisation of the society, we are being ruled by a single standard: more than ever money can change everything into itself. It seems then that Deleuze’s and Guattari’s rhizome is really a celebration of the City of London; its insurance companies and stockbrokers the most significant influence on their work.
There is a terrible irony too in this anti-scientific radicalism. In Language and Solitude Ernest Gellner shows the complex links between ideology, social structure, economic and political forces, and the production of knowledge. He shows, for example, how closely many of our social ideas reflect a certain aspect of science: the ability to reduce matter to its individual constituents, which can then be reconfigured in different ways – at a certain level everything can be reduced to a single substance. (Be Individuals! contains a long quote from this work. The one anomaly, already touched on, is consciousness.) Isn’t this a little too close to the rhizome, Deleuze’s and Guattari’s antidote to the “scientific model”, where everything, they believe, is “homogenised”, “centralized” and “standardized”? They too, it appears, are trapped inside the “dominant language”; although in their attempts to escape they have become absurd: like circus clowns free-associating in the laboratories of the Sorbonne.
Our ideas about the world come from the impressions of our lived experience. The question is how critical and self-aware are we of those influences. This will decide the depth and profundity of our thought; it will determine how far we go below the surface of things. Just picking up ideas, like kids the toys in Hamleys, risks merely replicating the unconscious pressures of the age; and being unaware of its effects you merely copy them. This is why Deleuze’s and Guattari’s work is not a sophisticated engagement and critique of modern life, but its celebration.
This may also account for its success. Many radicals, either in the academy or in the counter-culture, attack the symbols of the modern society – big business, science, the government -, but nevertheless benefit from them at the same time; thus the primitivist who attacks technology on her website; the left academic who lectures on “theory”, but won’t support the campaign against the expulsion of a fellow colleague. It is a risk-free radicalism that takes the nature of modern life for granted; and is based on a separation of values from ideas; theory from daily experience. Deleuze and Guattari are their ideal spokesmen; for it is both a call to arms and an acceptance of the status quo; the only strategy on offer: a revolutionary uprising, in words.
[xvi] When Ernest Gellner moved to the anthropology Chair at Cambridge his relationship with the other faculty remained awkward; and was not altogether dissimilar to the previous situation at the LSE. Alan Macfarlane believes he wanted it this way. I think he’s right, for the reasons mentioned above: it was his way of ensuring his independence. (John A. Hall Ernest Gellner) It’s possible that Chomsky’s position at MIT is not that dissimilar.
[xviii] This is the difference between the Soviet Union and Britain. How it works in the West is described in a preface to Animal Farm that was suppressed at its time of publication. It is an atmosphere, a diffused cultural conformity, a sort of passive smoking that people inhale, but cannot escape. John Locke described it well:
“If any one shall imagine, that I have forgot my own Notion of Law, when I make the Law, whereby Men judge of Vertue and Vice, to be nothing else, but Consent of private Men, who have not Authority enough to make a Law, a Power to inforce it: I think, I may say, that he who imagines Commendation and Disgrace, not to be strong Motives on Men, to accommodate themselves to the Opinions and Rules of those, with whom they converse, seems little skill’d in the Nature, or History of Mankind, the greatest part whereof he shall find to govern themselves chiefly, if not solely, by this Law of Fashion; and so they do that, which keeps them in Reputation with their Company, little regard the Laws of God, or the Magistrate. The penalties that attend the breach of God’s Laws, some, nay, perhaps, most Men seldom seriously reflect on… But no Man scapes the Punishment of their Censure and Dislike, who offends against the Fashion and Opinion of the Company he keeps, and would recommend himself to. Nor is there one in ten thousand, who is stiff and insensible enough, to bear up under the constant Dislike, and Condemnation of his own Club. He must be of a strange, and unusual Constitution, who can content himself, to live in constant Disgrace and Disrepute with his own particular Society. Solitude many Men have sought, and have been reconciled to: But no Body, that has the least Thought, or Sense of a Man about him, can live in Society, under the constant Dislike, and ill Opinion of his Familiars, and those he converses with.” (An Essay Concerning Human Understanding)
[xix] Think of the history around the French Revolution, which for many people is a political touchstone. Is it surprising that over the last 40 years, in a time of reaction, its evaluation has changed? Compare J.H. Plumb with his student, Simon Schama, twenty years later. Both, I believe, would regard themselves as liberals.
[xx] Jonathan Rée’s review, mentioned above, is very interesting in this regard. In this their last book Deleuze and Guattari write that the purpose of philosophy is the “creation of concepts”. Compare with Magee’s assessment, both in his monograph on Schopenhauer, and in his Confessions of a Philosopher: insights are what philosophy is really about; though they are often lost inside vast fortresses of argument and analysis; which seeks to support and protect them. He then goes on to write that most philosophers, academics rather than thinkers, intellectuals rather than artists, tend to concentrate on the fortress walls, rather than what they contain; analysis replaces insight; and the castle's keep, with its ornate rooms and courtly ladies, is never reached. That said, there is a curious twist when we come to Deleuze’s and Guattari’s definition of the concept. According to Rée they believe:
“[E]very philosophical concept is a pure ‘centre of vibrations’, a novelty, a singularity, an intensity: a matter of taste not of truth. Philosophical concepts are not the culmination of historical developments, and there is ‘no reason why they should cohere’. Only a philistine would try to measure them against each other, or work out which ones are better than others. Discerning philosophers will not waste their time, for instance, on ‘wondering whether Descartes was right or wrong’. They will not try to try to reconstruct his doctrines or evaluate them; but, like him, they will think in the present, and ‘do what he did’ – that is, ‘create concepts for problems that necessarily change’. Philosophy, as its name implies, is love, fearless love – ‘love of the well made concept’, based on tasteful judgements about unique assemblages of plane, persona and concept, about those glorious intellectual swoops and dodges that grey-faced philosophical functionaries can only ‘describe’ and ‘discuss’.”
With age they seem to have turned into Saul Bellow, acquiring that world-weary tone of the wise old man of letters. The really interesting comparison is with Schopenhauer’s description of genius, quoted in Russian Climate. For while they assert that philosophy and art are completely closed conceptual systems, what they are actually describing is this philosopher’s account of the artist when he contemplates some particular thing. That is, they are conceptualising the creative moment of insight, which occurs before the process of rationalisation begins (interestingly Rée makes a similar mistake, believing all new philosophical ideas simply recycle pre-existing "conceptual components"). There’s an essay here on the reception of English thought and how it was translated into the French Enlightenment; and its consequences since. My hunch is that the desire of thinkers like Voltaire to use Newton and Locke to overthrow Descartes wasn’t altogether successful because they were too influenced by the Cartesian tradition, so that in the process of translation they domesticated their heroes: they rationalised British empiricism; with the result there was a subtle shift in the assessment of reason, its power and efficacy exaggerated at the expense of experience (the overriding impression of both Locke and Hume is how weak is our rational faculties, both in its relation to our lives, and its ability to understand them). Peter Gay discusses the French philosophes dislike of Cartesianism, which in large part was related to the absorption of Descartes’ thought into Catholic orthodoxy, the main target of their attack (The Enlightenment: an interpretation vol 2). Here we have ideas fused with a culture; the combination is extraordinary hard to escape; as the reaction to a theory will in part be conditioned by this prior influence; and increasingly so the further we move from the hard sciences. Deleuze and Guattari appear to continue this particular French tradition, transforming an act that includes both the senses and reason into one that is all mind. This is the source of their irrationality.
The rest of the assessment confirms my earlier point: treating concepts as if they were paintings in a gallery, to be “loved” and worshipped, is not going to help us understand them. It is the difference between the aesthete and the artist, and between the act of contemplation and that of creation. This is the world of the salon, where virtuoso skills can be flaunted, with startling paradoxes and the catchy bon mot. It is not the way to understand either how the world works or the relationship of that world to its ideas. It is to condemn philosophy to irrelevance. It is also a defence against criticism. How useful for two thinkers with a briefcase full of dodgy gear! And note, if my suspicions are correct, and Deleuze and Guattari are overly conditioned by the French intellectual tradition, their philosophical pronouncements would prevent this from being investigated; for it is illegitimate, they believe, to do historical analysis in philosophy. How old fashioned and self-serving. We have returned to the days where ideas, and their creators, exist in a pure realm of speculation, cut off entirely from the world around them. It is the Romantic idea of genius and the pre-Enlightenment world of the free-standing spirit (Rée notes the similarity of their views on the division of knowledge - into art, science and philosophy - to the Catholic Holy Trinity). The question has to be asked why thinkers so out of date and reactionary (there is no other word to describe it) should be considered radicals.
[xxi] The classic treatment is The Great Transformation by Karl Polanyi, which shows the social destructiveness of the unregulated market; and how society in the 19th century had to contain it with laws and institutions to protect the lives of its citizens. What we have seen in the last 40 years is an attempt, partly successful, to rollback those social defences.
[xxiii] In retrospect we can see the liberal reforms as helping facilitate these changes. The old institutions lost their moral hold on the population; and a social restraint was removed from people’s desires. That is not to argue against them; only the use they were put to: the expansion of the consumer society, and its control by the large corporation. But note, both Deleuze and Guattari and the high street stores want our desires unleashed. Leaving aside the wisdom of unconstrained desire - imagine it for yourself, everyday looking for the next fix -the distribution of power within our society guaranteed that the practices of the corporation would predominate; that they would succeed into turning citizens into shoppers.
[xxv]This will probably be the outcome for Deleuze and Guattari: a 22nd century revival of iconology; where today’s art will be scoured for signs of their influence.
[xxvi] There may be stranger reasons for the popularity of such thinkers. If the content of what you teach is unimportant, for it is simply a means for promotion and publication, then there might be a natural tendency to drift towards those thinkers who argue truth doesn’t exist. Psychologically it will justify your indifference. See Russian Climate for more comment.
[xxviii] I am not advocating a common sense understanding of the world. The distinction is between our experience of reality and our understanding of it. Our “common sense” experience of the world is true - the book I touch, the sky I see - but our common sense ideas about it are not. Any serious inquiry has to explicate the tension between these two poles. What you can’t do, but which at the same time is very easy to do, is to conceptualise away that lived experience.
In his review Rée describes one technique:
“In this respect at least, What is Philosophy? Is no disappointment: its second half is an epic binge of reckless negations, meant to prove that all attempts to relate the content of philosophy to anything outside it are ‘pointless’ and ‘serve no purpose’.”
[xxix] Deleuze’s own life is the anti-thesis of his philosophy. One can’t help but think that his books were an escape fantasy.
[xxxii] Science, of course, has been much more successful than the humanities; which accounts for a lot of the resentment. It is also a truly hieratic knowledge: having both intellectual content and a language that is opaque to the general public. Here, no doubt, lies the passion for arcane jargon of these Parisian thinkers, who want some of that priestly magic. But there is a difference between science and alchemy; the new version of the latter exposed by Sokal and Bricmont.
[xxxiii] There are many highly suggestive pages in Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding about the propensity of our minds to want certainty. Our knowledge of objects in the outside world is limited and uncertain; and is prone to error and misunderstanding. However, this is only a tiny part of our mind’s engagement with the world. Mentally we use our sense data to navigate our environment. Many of these mental operations have an intuitive certainty about them. This can cause problems, particularly for intellectuals, who far more that the rest of the population mediate the world through concepts. For some thinkers, perhaps most, there will be a natural tendency to demand that our knowledge be absolute and certain; and achieve it by not testing it too much against the empirical reality. Few are as intellectually honest as Russell.
One can speculate why this should be so. Locke suggests our minds are poorly made for profound investigations into reality. Most humans get by easily with the rough and ready tools of vague and ambiguous words and ideas that make up a series of mental habits. To live we don’t need precision and clarity for most of what we do, and what we think. However, a certain oddness of the mind allows us to transcend these limitations. Thus the glories of science, art etc etc…
But to return to certainty. For Locke the one thing we can be sure about is our experience: of the door in front of us; the keyboard I am typing these words on. These experiences are certain and cannot be denied. The orange I eat cannot be defined away; although how I perceive it, and wants happens after it has been swallowed, can be explained and elucidated with further facts and complex theories. The key intellectual task is not to deny that reality, but to explain it. It appears that we are designed so that our perceptions have to be solid and certain, for we can’t have too many doubts about our physical engagement with the world, as our survival depends upon it. Imagine an extreme scepticism, where everything had to be tested before you could act; each piece of food investigated for its nutritional value; every piece of earth prodded and poked in case it were quick sand. Such beings would not exist for long. That certainty is transferred into nearly all our thinking; and it is this that causes the confusion. For between our perception and our understanding of the world there is a huge gap; which requires us to have reasonable doubts about our knowledge of it. The natural tendency, however, is to want our thoughts to be certain; and this propensity (which can include complete negation or complete acceptance: neither can live with the tension I have described) usually triumphs over intellectual integrity. The result is that faith defeats reason; and we see this particularly amongst intellectuals, who become convinced that a single theory, or a small cluster of ideas, explains everything (the TLS has an example of this nearly every week; often associated with the current fad for neuroscience: in this week’s edition we are told that the source of religion is migraine). How have some people been able to escape this? One possible explanation was suggested in a previous post: parts of our minds, our ability for abstract reason for example, may be evolutionary accidents. (Russian Climate).
The fundamentalist Christian and the extreme relativist, who denies any truth, are intellectually very close. In both the tension, between what we know with any certainty, and what we don’t, is resolved. Here the proponents either know everything, because their religion tells them so, or nothing, for their theory shows it. In both cases there is little respect for common sense and the empirical realities; a trait common amongst a certain kind of academic and religious extremist; who place too high a value on reason, and not enough on understanding and judgement; which in turn rely on “touch” and “feel”, which they don’t have.
[xxxiv] “His lectures ranges across philosophy and flirting, Mozart and Edith Piaf, Proust and Série Noire, and he was adored by his students, not so much a professor as a ‘spiritual guide’.” (Shatz)
[xxxvi] Sokal and Bricmont.
[xxxvii] “… they would portray desire as a relentless and impersonal flow, an electric current moving through the social body and interrupted only by ‘desiring machines’ that sought to direct and channel it. A desiring machine could be anything from a breast (‘a machine that produced milk’) to a revolutionary and political movement, and its aim was always the same: to connect with other machines (the infant’s mouth, the masses), and produce a shift in reality. Desire had virtually no limits…” (Shatz)
Total celebration is the equivalent of total scepticism: the interesting details, all the shifts and confusions between the different layers of reality, are lost. The attack on Iraq is the same as a child crying for their teddy bear. It’s not so much wrong as meaningless; which is highly useful, because you cannot prove that it is wrong (perfect for a university system where monographs are now examined). Moreover, you don’t need any information to back it up. You can apply the ‘desiring machine’ to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, or to a nursery school. A quick skip through Wikipedia for the barest of details, those few facts to separate these two phenomena, and you have your monograph published in some minor university journal. For the details are less important than the theory. Of course, in the next issue someone else will you accuse of conservatism: the nursery school and the Communist Party are actually the same! In a university system that requires more and more articles to be produced more quickly what better solution than Deleuze and Guattari? Here is a universal theory that can use any old junk to explain anything at all. A mass-produced formula that manufactures car after car after car… The banality camouflaged not by slick advertising campaigns but the baroque jargon of mandarins.
[xxxviii] Or the body. What Locke describes is more a physical than a mental operation: it is a combination of our senses and our conscious thought; where the impact will be deeper and more mysterious than the latter. Think of a book you read; which you later describe. Some of the details, and most of its shape, you will have absorbed unconsciously; and it, together with at least some of its meaning, will be recollected, and in part created, days after it has been finished.
[xxxix] If we lived a pure animal existence this tension between will and mind may not occur. It is precisely because we are human that we struggle with the constant pull of our unconscious and the pressures of the world. How we long to escape!
“Many develop a certain measure of misology, i.e. hatred of reason, because they find that they had won weariness for themselves rather than bliss, and so in the end they tend to envy, rather than despise, the commoner run of men, who grant but little influence to their reason… “(Kant quoted in Ernest Gellner’s Reason and Culture)
Compare this quote with a passage from Anti-Oedipus:
“We maintain that the social field is immediately invested in desire, that is the historically determined product of desire, and that libido has no need of any mediation or sublimation, any psychic operation, any transformation… There is only desire and the social, and nothing else.” (emphasis in original)
This quote seems to demonstrate Kant’s point to perfection. No “psychic operation” or “transformation” is, I assume, a reference to our reason; and the “social field”, isn’t this just the common man, but in more intellectually fashionable language?
There is a soft version of their theory, which is plausible, and is backed by empirical evidence: absorbed in creative work the artist or thinker can lose themselves momentarily in the activity; which in turn gives a heightened sense of existence, for those few moments. A society should thus encourage lifestyles where these experiences can be increased; either through more rewarding work; or through increased leisure time, which can be used creatively.
This version tones down the irrationalism (the mind is involved), and limits it to only part of our lives. It is also relatively old fashioned – Bertrand Russell was advocating this from the early 20th century; and its roots go further back. It doesn’t have the fascination of Deleuze’s and Guattari’s wilder, more encompassing, suggestion, which by its very extremity attracts attention; like book burners or fundamentalist clerics; or iPhones and iPads. That is, these literally insane ideas mirror the consumer culture’s need for novelty, whether in the shops or in the media. J.H. Plumb’s In The Light of History has an essay on modern art, where he attacks the increasing reliance on originality to gain effects. The same trend, it is arguable, has taken place in academia. Both replicate processes in the economy; where quality is increasingly less important than the ability to stimulate interest; which in turn leads to increased sales or advertising revenue.
[xl] A recent review of a biography of the sci-fi writer Robert A. Heinlein (TLS 10/12/2010) notes some anomalies in his oeuvre: one of his books, Starship Troopers, has been called fascistic, while another, Stranger in a Strange Land, a libertarian manifesto; though both were written around the same time. To explain this anomaly the reviewer describes the author’s admiration for both hippy ideals and well-organised institutions, like the military; he believes these represent the tensions of both his need to belong and his urge for personal freedom. Implied in the review is a conflict between these two positions. I don’t think it’s quite so clear-cut. A lot of hippy thinking was around community living, of self-expression within a group; with no restraints from outside organisations or imposed laws. It is a return to the time before the modern state and the rise of bureaucracy; which only began to dominate our society from around the 18th century. Before then most power was exercised in small, closed communities using opinion, local custom, and the charisma of strong personalities to control and dominate its populations. The most powerful tyrant is not the firm or the state: it is another human being, particularly if they have charm and instinctive power, backed by the sanctions of custom and habit (Locke, quoted previously, knew this well. Nadezhda Mandelstam has a remarkable example in Hope Abandoned, where a petty rural tyrant is reinstated at the wish of the community). Institutions can often protect us against the instinctive authoritarianism of these small groups and individuals. For someone like Karl Popper the atomised existence of an open society, obeying impersonal rules, and underwritten by strong institutions, was the best protection of individual freedom. (See Energy for more comment). However, there is a weakness with this line of thought, taken to its extreme by someone like Friedrich Hayek, for it tends to give too much credence to the self-image of these “liberty-protecting” institutions. And so we return to that old problem: what is the right balance between the individual and the community; and that community with the wider society. We return to the difficulty of facts and fine distinctions…
[xli] I go too far, of course. The modern state and the corporation gives the authoritarian personality more power; and increases the amount of damage they can do. Amy Goodman put it well: without the press George Bush would have found it hard to persuade people to go to war. How many would he have convinced shouting through his megaphone from the White House lawn?
The corporation and the state, and this is the more usual practice, allows non-entities to rule like autocrats (Nadezhda Mandelstam discussing the petty tyrant notes how their arbitrary violence was later replaced by the far worse effects of the anonymous bureaucrat, who only followed orders from the centre). For institutions, to fulfil their own objectives, force their employees to work in a certain way, and which makes it easier for them to commit insensitive, or inhuman, acts, as rules replace human interaction. It is the functioning of the large organisations, their size, power and impersonality, that are the main threats to liberty today. In the cartoon world of the media there is a “clash of civilisations”, with “defenders of freedom” upholding “Enlightenment principles” as they attack the “mighty threat” of religion; which is often merely a camouflage for anti-Islamic prejudice. However, as Chomsky long ago noted, to uphold those 18th century values, which were pre-capitalist, they have to be extended: from the Church and the State to the Corporation. The latter easily the most powerful force in society today. An excellent discussion can be found in Dan Hind's The Threat To Reason.
[xlii] Polanyi in his classic book quotes R.G. Hawtrey on the dangers of the commodification of land, and thus the threat unregulated capitalism poses to civilised life. He could be responding to Deleuze and Guattari:
“In contrast to the nomadic peoples, the cultivator commits himself to improvements fixed in a particular place. Without such improvements human life must remain elementary, and little removed from that of animals. And how large a role have these fixtures played in human history! It is they, the clear and cultivated lands, the houses, and the other buildings, the means of communication, the multifarious plant necessary for production, including industry and mining, all the permanent and immovable improvements that tie human community to the locality where it is. They cannot be improvised, but must be built up gradually by generations of patient effort, and the community cannot afford to sacrifice them and start afresh elsewhere. Hence that territorial character of sovereignty, which permeates our political conceptions.” (emphasis in original)
Referring to a century of free trade thought and rhetoric, Polanyi wrote in reference to this passage:
“For a century these obvious truths were ridiculed.” And the results were often social catastrophe on a global scale.
Anybody who wants to take Deleuze and Guattari seriously should ponder these words long and carefully. For these supposedly extreme left wingers, who want to overthrow state capitalism, are actually copying the ideology of its greatest adherents, but a century after the fact.
[xliii] “I sent [Tony Blair] a letter saying it was too late to pull out now baby, you had better stick to your guns. If I had spare time I’d go out there and give them a shot or two myself… I’d terrify them!”
So sadly boring. Everyone says they can’t do anything because they are so busy: taking dope, drinking Jack Daniels and watching the X-Factor. If anybody has the time it is Keith Richards. So go out there, man; I’ll even buy you the ticket. This kind of jive talk: is it so different from Deleuze and Guattari, and their thousands of epigones in the academy? It is simply mindless and content-less rhetoric.
[xliv] I’m being consciously unfair. But for a reason: these views are taken far too seriously; and their consequences are never properly investigated. In their actual lives they suffered pretty appallingly. Guattari’s last years were wiped out by depression, while Deleuze committed suicide; because of ill-health.
[xlv] Chomsky is especially interesting, as he is clearly outside the conventional divide between the “irrational” counter-culture and the “rational” mainstream. In some respects he is like Zappa himself: the “freakiest” and most “far out” of the rock stars, yet someone who never took drugs; who was a liberal, though often more radical than this left wing colleagues; and believing in freedom of speech fought for it; while also advocating an alternative lifestyle, which he partly lived. In the Sixties many regarded him as a hippy, yet he attacked them remorselessly; ridiculing their easy formulas and general fakery.
In his study, The Chomsky Effect, Robert F. Barsky at one point almost breaks down under the strain of this anomaly. The book endorses Chomsky’s rationalism, but then tries to reconcile it with postmodern literary and social criticism, which often attacks not only science but rationality itself; often seen as an agent of state capitalism (there are examples in this essay). As the chapter progresses we watch him buckle under the strain. He collapses totally, as we shall see, when he comes to Sokal’s Hoax, which has become a touchstone in the debate between the relativism of the postmodernists, and those who believe in rational inquiry based on universal standards and an objective reality.
[Of Julia Kristeva’s accusation that Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont are part of an anti-French campaign he writes] “Her view did not surprise those who know of her long experience with high-level and highly politicised intellectual worlds, of which she has been a well-recognised participant. Further, we have enough knowledge… of what has been called the authoritarian side of certain French intellectual elites. This is a specific use of the term authoritarian, relating to ties between the intellectuals and the state, for example, in ties between the supporters of the Parti Communiste Français (many of whom were intellectuals) and the Bolsheviks and later, when the worst atrocities were finally revealed in France, between the French Left and the Maoists. In short Kristeva, who herself followed these trends …”
The phrase “specific use of the term authoritarian” is odd, and underestimates the problem; while the overall passage is too forgiving: many chose to wear their own blindfolds when they turned their gaze to the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, the conclusion appears obvious: Kristeva’a attack is a fairly typical example of the Stalinism all to common in some French intellectual circles. But no, we are in for a surprise.
[Kristeva] “is well placed to recognise links between academies and power, and justifiably considered that the Sokal business was ideological as well as corrective.”
One of the blurbs for Intellectual Impostures is written by Kristeva: “disinformation… an intellectually and politically insignificant product.” This hardly suggests she sees it as a “justifiable corrective”. Surely we need to draw the proper conclusion: here is a “ high level intellectual politician” who is using her power to silence embarrassing criticism; of both herself and her celebrated colleagues. For contrary to his assertion, it is unlikely that somebody who has been a Communist, Maoist and a member of the French establishment, is likely to have a balanced assessment of the situation. Quite the reverse, in fact; as Barsky himself should now know, having written two books on Chomsky’s political work.
Before someone is accused of ideological bias the contents of their arguments have to be discussed. Yet in his book the actual argument about the incompetence and probable charlatanry of some French intellectuals is swallowed up by a political and ideological debate; mostly American in origin (the focus tends to shift from the wider discussion in Intellectual Impostures to the narrow one of Sokal’s Hoax; which may be its one enduring weakness). It looks like camouflage. And it feels very odd, appearing, as it does, in a book about someone who has had a lifetime facing similar attacks; and for the same reasons. Nonetheless, this account is fascinating and instructive as it reveals the tension, both in Barsky’s professional life, he is a professor of comparative literature, and within a significant portion of the Left, who defend a relativist approach; which they see as the best defence against the power of capitalism (Is it so Unusual, has a discussion on and links to some of the most extreme adherents to this view; strangely enough poets in academia). To support and perhaps mollify these people Barsky attempts to separate Chomsky from Sokal and Bricmont; to make him appear more accommodating than he actually is to postmodernism.
Let us remind ourselves of their key arguments: certain French thinkers misuse scientific ideas; a rejection of epistemic relativism in the sciences; and the irrational and relativist approach is not in the Left’s interest. Each of those arguments has to be considered seriously. Calling them an ideology is no substitute. Of course, once they have been treated properly we can look at the wider scene; we can investigate the societal pressures, and see if they are conditioned by the culture. However, even here we must be careful: we cannot predetermine the outcome of any sociological inquiry; that is, we cannot just assume they are the intellectual henchmen for Lockheed-Martin. As this essay hopefully suggests, the reality could be far more interesting and complex. A useful starting point for such an inquiry is to ask the most obvious question: where did the power lie at the time the book was written? With Sokal and Bricmont, or with the intellectual stars they exposed?
Deleuze’s and Guattari‘s work is very weak, and any edifice built upon it will be very fragile indeed. Sokal and Bricmont have showed this may be the case with other thinkers too. Once this is recognised, a whole series of implications flow from it… No wonder people are concerned. Yet the discussion in the chapter Obfuscating The Chomsky Effect doesn’t seem that interested in these implications. Instead, Barsky tries to construct a defence of these figures, and uses some questionable interpretations of Chomsky's own criticisms of postmodernism to help him. In fact he stretches these views to such an extent, particularly to protect himself from Sokal and Bricmont, that the elastic strains; and snaps…
His discussion begins with an overview of the postmodern scene, and shows, I think correctly, that a number of French thinkers use Chomsky’s work as a launching pad for their own ideas. Although what they don’t appear to do is actually engage with his theories at his level. Thus Barsky quotes Kristeva about the need to connect “signifiers” to the “Freudian notion of the unconscious.” But is this a valid criticism, or simply another research project to complement Chomsky’s own specialist work? More importantly, though, it illustrates her lack of engagement with his thought. For these comments assumes that the unconscious is as Freud described it; a dubious assumption, which Chomsky himself has undermined – the Freudian unconscious is too open to rational investigation and self awareness (Trauma (II) In our Fingernails). If this is true Kristeva’s statement becomes nonsensical. This seems to me to be an excellent example of the problem with many of these characters: they accept too many ideas from other disciplines too uncritically.
We are then given the self-image of the postmodernist. It is the conventional picture, and thus has the usual questionable assumptions, particularly its characterisation of modernism (footnote vi Prejudice offers an alternative picture). To elucidate his summary he cites a classic example of the contemporary academic style; that says nothing, but appears to convey such a lot.
[Poststructuralism] “is a discourse of and about modernism, and… if we are to locate the postmodern in poststructuralism it will have to be found in the ways various forms of poststructuralism have opened up new problematics in modernism and have reinscribed modernism in the discourse formations of our time.” (Andreas Huyssen)
In a section summarising what he believes is the start of its decline, which he thinks began with the exposure of Heidegger’s and Paul De Man’s Nazi background, he quotes Jean-François Lyotard:
“I referred to a quantity of books I never read. Apparently it impressed people, it’s all a bit of a parody.”
It’s the shamelessness that astounds. After criticising these comments he quotes a number of strong remarks from Chomsky himself, on the questionable quality of much postmodernist writing. It is here that Barsky begins to wobble:
“One might expect that Chomsky would strongly support the Sokal enterprise, notably to attack the misappropriation of scientific knowledge…”
This, however, is not the case, for there are “important differences” between them, which he will show us. And indeed, what appeared a general framework from which to launch a vigorous attack on the new scholastics, though our suspicions are raised by some of the emollient language, becomes instead an attempt to defend them; by criticising Sokal and Bricmont; sometimes quite bizarrely. One example: the playfulness and irony of these French thinkers is lost in translation (the context, the culture, perhaps even the climate…). A defence one imagines used by Lyotard himself, on occasion. Strange though that Barsky hasn’t noticed that Intellectual Impostures is itself translated: from the original French! Wouldn’t this suggest that they might be a little closer to the culture than their American adversaries?
The strategy is now to concentrate on the meaning of the hoax, not the individual arguments. The problem with this approach is that even if all the commentary on the alleged ideological intentions were true, it would have no bearing on those arguments themselves; which remain untouched. Therefore, by giving little attention to the core of their work, he tacitly accepts its truth; though hides this by concentrating on the wider academic scene. Ernest Gellner describes the technique well:
“Under criticism, there is a shift, so to speak, to the third person: instead of discussing the criticism and its logical merits, you switch to describing the conflict situation, the critic, his stance, and so on. This in a way neutralises him, at worst puts him and the position he criticised on the same level, as fellow participants in the same social ‘accountable’ situation; but in the end it does even better than this – it by-passes the issue of the content and logical validity of the criticism….”(This is a description of ethnomethodology, which bears, as we shall see, a striking resemblance to the style of Deleuze and Guattari. The quote is from the essay The Re-enchantment industry in Spectacles and Predicaments)
After another long quote from Chomsky, which again seems to confirm Sokal’s and Bricmont’s position, Barsky writes:
[After saying that not all the thinkers are postmodernists, a point covered in their book, he writes (and note how he continues the technique described by Gellner)] “[S]o a foray into the Sokal waters suggests that the hoax is of interest because it serves as a corrective among many others to a prevalent trend in the social sciences and humanities, and it further suggests that we can learn from the hoax and improve our work while doing so. The hoax is of further interest in this regard because it shows how little each side understands the other’s positions; if it is true that social scientists do not understand nuclear physics, it is just as true that scientists do not understand deconstruction, and the hoax has not gone a long way to resolving either problem.” (my emphasis)
Instead of a criticism of some thinkers who appear to use pretentious jargon to camouflage the paucity of their thought, it now becomes a conflict between the disciplines; and is the very thing that Sokal and Bricmont say they are not doing. Indeed, in their book they go out of their way to show that this is not their intention. More importantly, though, Barsky’s words miss the fundamental issue. The hoax showed these are not the usual kinds of mistakes that scholars make; but something much more extreme: the systematic abuse of scientific ideas to bolster status and reputation, amongst some academics, who as a result have achieved international celebrity. This is the crucial point that has to be recognised and addressed; and you would have thought for obvious reasons: shouldn’t these mistakes be given the widest exposure, to ensure they are not repeated in new work? That this point is avoided or downplayed suggests the seriousness of the whole intellectual enterprise: its content is secondary. This is not the case across large areas of the humanities where these thinkers are not influential. There it is ideological bias rather than flagrant error that tends to predominate; though one has to wary of too big a generalisation – there are huge differences within subject areas, and between academics.
Intellectual Impostures does not discuss deconstruction, so Barsky’s other point seems irrelevant. However, it is worth discussing in light of Chomsky’s own remarks: he does criticise it; and his analysis relates to what he believes are significant differences between the sciences and the humanities, with the former having greater depth; and which are difficult for the intelligent layman to understand because of the technical language. The difference between deconstruction and the hard sciences is that in one the technical vocabulary is legitimate; in the other it may be unnecessary. In the one complexity of exposition seems paramount, while in the other simplicity is often the goal, particularly amongst its greatest practitioners. There is a touching story about Einstein who years after he first conceived it had his original paper on the special theory of relativity retyped, in order to raise money for World War II, and in the process realised it could be written more simply. And this was a consistent character trait: “Einstein, throughout his life, never tired of trying to simplify and make more beautiful the formulation of his ideas.” (Einstein by Jeremy Bernstein). Bryan Magee records, in his Confessions of a Philosopher, how Chomsky was extremely pleased after their interview: it was clearest exposition he had yet given of his work. Of course, it is the utmost simplicity that is compatible with the complexity of the theory; and this will vary between disciplines. What is striking about so much of modern academic literary criticism is its ugliness and obscurity, which is often in strong contrast to the works it “explains”; its paragraphs like dirty net curtains over the clean windows of the original sentences. (And this hasn’t always been the case in the humanities; Is There Beauty in Hegel? has an example and analysis.) What Sokal, Bricmont, Chomsky, and Russell earlier, all condemn is a tendency for some academics to hide behind obscurantism (Russell has a very funny example in Portraits From Memory). This may be linked to the appreciable difference in cognitive power between the sciences and the humanities; the main reason for their relative status in society (thus Barsky’s assertion that there is mutual misunderstanding is almost certainly incorrect). Any wider discussion has to look at this discrepancy; and the modern revolution that has replaced the arts with the hard sciences on the throne of knowledge; and the resentment this has created. This doesn’t imply the arts and social sciences are irrelevant or weak subject areas; quite the contrary. But in any discussion about ideological motivation we will have to pay attention to these status questions; and its effects, both inside and outside the university.
Steven Weinberg’s intervention is dismissed because he lobbied for a “multibillion-dollar particle accelerator”. It seems a better approach is to separate out his comments on the Sokal Hoax from his wider political views. Here we can show that he is wrong:
“We will need to confirm and strengthen the vision of a rationally understandable world if we are to protect ourselves from the irrational tendencies that still beset humanity.”
There is no link between the two. Most of the problems of our society are not the result of irrationalism: the multi-national corporation uses a high level of instrumental reason to ensure profits and growth; exploiting the intelligence of its employees to instil irrational impulses in the general public. (see Everywhere Bureaucrats; and particularly the quote from Chomsky.) Rationality, isolated from all other values, is one of the reasons for the destructiveness of state capitalism (interestingly Nadezhda Mandelstam in Hope Against Hope gives exactly the same reason for the madness of the Soviet Union. She also is scathing about the weakness and conformity of its intellectuals, all to quick to use their reason to justify their self-interest. This book and its sequel, Hope Abandoned, should be read both for the differences between the Soviet Union and the West, but also for the similarities; which are very striking.). Any strategy for a more equal and just society will depend upon political action, rational analysis, and the cultivation of humane values. Such a strategy has to see both the human being and the society in their totality; with an accommodation between our feelings and our intellect; the individual and the public realm. Many people, particularly outside the academy (artists, poets, musicians etc), who endorse postmodernism share this view, recognising the centrality of values for the good life, which they often associate with the feelings embodied in their own work. The mistake is to conflate this general view with these particular theories; or others like them, which often attack a caricature of reason and science. For what is not recognised is that these so-called irrational ideas are in fact the all too rational appropriation of the arts by academics who don’t have the “feel” and “touch” of the originals; replacing the living poem or painting with intellectual formulas and cliché, they replace Alma Mahler by poor replicas of Kokoscha’s doll. The social sciences and humanities are trapped between two powerful sources of truth and insight: the hard sciences and art, though these produce their effects in different ways. Only rarely can a social scientist or teacher of literature replicate this power: there are few true originals amongst the faculty staff (see Russian Climate for the reasons). The usual practice is to perform a fairly mundane analysis of what is already known. Borrowing the “feel” of the arts, and mimicking the technical obscurity of the sciences, this problem is overcome in postmodernism; giving the appearance of profundity, while facilitating a mass production of monographs. You achieve a high status and you produce an impressive body of work; which appeals both to the instincts and the institutional demands of the modern university. (See The Triumph of Literary Politics Over Honest Criticism for how this process has in turn affected the arts themselves. For an excellent wider discussion about public values in politics see David Marquand’s The Decline of the Public. Robert Darnton in the NYRB has an insightful comment on the “irrational” effects of monopoly capitalism in book and journal acquisition in university libraries. His solution is a not for profit, public option; providing these materials free, or at reduced price, on the internet. His discussion illustrates how we live in a world corrupted by “market principles”, which, as in this case, allows for vast private profit at public expense. His approach is no less rational than Google’s or Elsevier’s, but it is based on different values.)
One experiences a touch of vertigo when “a range of highly respected and high-powered…scholars” are brought in to attack Alan Sokal. Why mention their status? It is certainly incongruous in a dispute where scholarly heavyweights have been exposed as amateurs. One of these “high-powered” scholars writes:
“…the Marxist project – which everyone knows, is profoundly materialist.”
Everyone knows. A favourite expression, it seems, amongst this crowd - see my comments in footnote xiv. One could argue that its use condemns you to almost certain error. In this case it is merely assertion, not fact; while the history shows something quite different. Since at least the 1920s the more philosophically inclined Marxists have left empirical reality behind; and the doctrine has become increasingly metaphysical (in the jargon: it has turned towards hermeneutics) as it seeks to reconcile 20th century reality to the failings and predictions of the original theory (see Hero Worship, particularly the references to J.C. Merquior, about Western Marxism, and Alasdair MacIntryre, who writes of the metaphysical nature of concepts like the Proletariat, History, and the Party in general Marxian thought. For an excellent analysis of the historical trajectory see Ernest Gellner’s Postmodernism, Reason and Religion.)
After the heavyweights we have the lightweights.
“[S]cientific knowledge is affected by social and cultural conditions and is not a version of some universal truth that is the same in all times and places.” (Andrew Ross)
Are Newton’s laws really different in 17th century England and 21st century Japan? They can be misread and misunderstood, but apart from certain sections of western humanism who takes these “multiple” readings, that is mistakes, seriously? Isn’t it precisely the universal nature of Newtonian mechanics that allowed Einstein both to understand them and find their weaknesses? The error is to conflate something that can be universally agreed with something that will be true for all time; and reveals a serious misunderstanding about the nature of science. Science can provide the deepest, most reliable, knowledge we have about some aspects of reality; but it doesn’t mean that we know that a scientific theory is absolutely right; or that some future developments may not modify it. Here is Sokal and Bricmont:
“No statement about the real world can ever literally be proven; but to use the eminently appropriate expression from Anglo-Saxon law, it can sometimes be proven beyond reasonable doubt. The unreasonable doubt subsists.”
The mistake of Ross, and many of the (extreme) relativists, is that they both underestimate the power of science and want to test it too severely. So that on the one hand physics or chemistry is treated like history or sociology, while on the other it is condemned for what it cannot possibly achieve: absolute certainty. The problem with this approach, as pointed out by Hume, is that it is too rational. For it wants the mind to ground itself, which he believed impossible: our reasoning capacities are themselves part of our instincts. Russell put it well:
“…the opposition of instinct and reason is mainly illusory. Instinct, intuition or insight is what first leads to the beliefs which subsequent reason confirms or confutes; but the confirmation, where it is possible, consists, in the last analysis, of agreement with other beliefs no less instinctive (Mysticism and Logic, my emphasis).
These ideas also seem founded on a literalism: theories have to be reduced to facts in order for them to be true (a common complaint about evolution, for example, is that it is only a theory). That is, only things that can be perceived we can be certain about; which is actually very close to the Positivist ideal, the accusation against the hard sciences! Though often this is not stated, merely implied: because facts are theories (we are told) there can be no truth; which in turn assumes facts (if only we could get at them) are true. This is where the misunderstanding may lie - experience is being treated as knowledge (see footnote xxviii above: our experience is always certain, because it happens, even if the knowledge it contains is not.).
Another assumption is that anything originating in the mind has to be biased in some way; that it is impossible for it to be independent and have its own rules of evidence, which go beyond individual subjectivism. However, this seems to misunderstand both how the mind works and the nature and limitations of rationality itself. All knowledge reaches a point, as described by Russell, where we have to rely for its validation on a kind of “mental feel”, where we have an “instinctive certainty” about the fit between the theory and the facts; which in science is both deeper than in other domains, and much more certain; because it has built on a tradition of knowledge based on rigorous testing, observation and reasoning (it is supported by both instinct and reason, and can be validated across different cultures). Richard I. Aaron in his study of Locke traces back that feel of an “instinctive rightness” to Plato - it has a long pedigree in Western thought. Jeremy Bernstein describes something similar in Einstein; although here it is in two parts, the initial instinct about the original insight; and then its later confirmation by empirical testing. Though these original instincts can be wrong, for Einstein it was his “feel” about quantum theory. Outside the sciences and the arts these intuitive failures are much more common; for they are much less supported by the evidence. Nadezhda Mandelstam has much comedy at Akhmatova’s expense because of her belief in her own mental sense of being right – true in her poetry, but not so in the rest of her life.
In Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding he writes that our most certain knowledge are mental concepts which exist independently in the mind: 3+3=6 has universal validity once we know how to do arithmetic (that is, there is a standard of measuring truth which exists in all our minds; although we have no idea what it is, or how it works). Of course there are other concepts which have a purely subjective existence; as when I think George Bush is Britain’s prime minister. Both are real mental experiences, though only one is knowledge; the other is opinion; and often wrong. This in turn may explain the confusion mentioned above: because our experiences must include the operation of the mind (it constructs a representation out of the sense data) people mistake this operation with the ideas that result from it (they confuse the biological mechanism, which is the same across the species, with the particular mental phenomena it produces in each individual). This confuses opinion, which seems to naturally arise out of those operations, with its refinement into knowledge (which in turn relies on what is universal in that biological mechanisms for its validation). This is perhaps what Locke meant when he said we had to try to linger a little longer on our ideas; for knowledge is reflection on these mental experiences, which are made up of all our sensory data, including the opinions we hear from others. Knowledge, in this analysis, appears as something unusual, and quite separate from the normal workings of our minds. As Russell notes, our higher reasoning capacities have the ability to step outside our instincts to some degree; and this will be greater in science because its methods are designed to filter out subjective experience, particularly when it comes to testing the original insights; and this in turn is reinforced by the rest of the scientific community.
Total scepticism is a symptom of too much reason, and suggests a peculiar failing of the mind (see Russian Climate, for more analysis). Thus with Deleuze and Guattari the problem isn’t so much their irrationalism, but their lack of common sense. It is precisely because everything is mediated through their reason that they can advocate the insane – for it all remains at the level of the idea only. 2+2=5. In 1984 this is what the regime demands. The kernel of this novel is around that tension: between an ideological commitment to enforce a doctrine, and the hero’s reality: 2+2=4. If they are correct, in the “polyvocal moment when everything is possible”, there is no difference between these two positions; they are equally valid as 2+2=6; ultimately it will depend on one’s time and place – whether one lives in Cardiff in 1970 or Paris in 1968. Who actually believes this, really? To do so don’t you have to undergo the same ideological conditioning as Winston Smith? That is, to achieve this result a conscious rationality has to be welded onto one’s natural mental instincts; you must fix an iron mask onto a human face.
Like Ross the “high powered” Stanley Aranowitz believes science must be conditioned by social and cultural conditions (or “presuppositions”, to use his word). Do we know what they are? For a cluster of theories (or practices, I think is the fashionable term) that vaunts its complexity and sophistication the conclusions always seem so banal: power, of some kind, usually economic, explains it all. Why have the theory in the first place if we know all the answers in advance? Aranowitz, it seems, and many others like him, take for granted that they know these social and cultural conditions (or “presuppositions), and their effects on knowledge. But is it so obvious? In the Soviet Union in 1937 one could see with transparent clarity how the society determined thought and literature. People were told what to do, and they did it out of fear and ideological conformity. But lets go back 35 years. How are we to explain the social influences on the Russian Symbolist movement, the mathematical work of Russell and the paintings of Matisse? How do we convert the social and economic forces of the time into the exact content of their work? Is it even possible? For here, it seems to me, is the biggest misunderstanding of all: the nature of influence. A finished work, to use a simple model, will be made of three parts: the talent and personality of the artist or thinker, the tradition in which they work, and their time and place. Just like the human mind and our personalities the environment works on us in a mysterious way, and is not properly understood. Sometimes it can have a direct effect: like an image, specific technology, or new social conditions. More often it is merely the raw material that the thinker or artist transforms, and which may bear little resemblance to the finished work; and the greater the creative insight the greater the transformation, and the less trace of the original influence. In more abstract pursuits, like physics or music, the societal influences will be even harder to pin down. Often it will be only a general “feel” within the culture; which may stimulate the emotions and the unconscious more than any specific event or idea. In which case there will no visible sign in the work at all! The turn of the 20th century is a good example, where there was innovation across nearly every field, and which one suspects must be related in some way to the immense social and economic changes that were taking place at the time. That is, an atmosphere of change and innovation, and strain and tension, may stimulate a more general intellectual excitement, allowing for the revolutionary creative leap or insight that discovers new horizons. (For an overview of the period see Bradbury and Macfarlane’s Modernism. Art and Life has much detail on the social forces and their possible impact.) To produce a comprehensive theory, which has meaningful content, and which explicates individual works across all areas during this time, is going to be very hard indeed. Jeremy Bernstein’s account of both Newton’s and Einstein’s creativity, which clearly shows its affinity with their stellar counterparts in the arts, highlights the problem: if much of this process is unconscious, of which we know little, how can we be confident that we understand the effects of a society upon it?
But what about this essay, you say, doesn’t this make the same mistake? Maybe. However, my view of Deleuze and Guattari is that they are not creative thinkers, and thus skimming the surface of ideas, and of life, they do not penetrate and thus transform them. Instead, they are like newspaper readers who merely recycle stories and comment from the columns of the Times and the Guardian. It is these distinctions, between the profound and the shallow, the serious and the unserious, that dogmatic theories about influence fail to recognise. They believe in an epistemological equality that simply does not exist; either between disciplines or individuals.
Their assumptions also fail to account for the nature of the creative act itself, and how it works within the limits of a tradition. It takes too much for granted, and is reminiscent of Behaviourism, that believed humans were merely passive recipients of the effects of the environment; an extreme version, and thus distortion, of classical Empiricism. It is this, of course, that makes Chomsky so difficult to categorise, for he made his reputation demolishing the behaviourist approach; yet is clearly part of the radical Left; which historically has been opposed to theories of biological innateness. (Interestingly, James McGilvray in the introduction to Cartesian Linguistics calls Foucault an empiricist. He may not go far enough…). Russell, in The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism, put it well:
“[Criticising their outmoded psychology he writes of Marxism] “ making Marxians rigid and Procrustean in their treatment of the life of instinct. Of this rigidity the materialistic conception of history is a prominent instance.”
The sense one gets of reading much of this stuff is that there is little understanding of the creative process – often the book or painting is just data to confirm the theory. Let us return to 1937, and the poet Osip Mandelstam trying to save his life by writing a poem praising the regime. At first he finds it hard to even start; indeed he has to change his working method to do so – he writes the piece at a desk rather composing it inside his head. When the poem is written it sparks off a cycle that is in creative conflict with it: his genius was greater than the pressures of the authoritarian state, and could not, in the end, succumb. (Hope Against Hope). But note: in order to write this work he had to consciously force himself to do so. This is the biggest problem of the sociology of art and thought: an attempt is made to reduce an essentially irrational act to an academic formula; which will not accept there are limits to reason. The exemplar of this approach is Sigmund Freud, who seems, like Marx, to have had a huge influence on his line of thinking; with deconstruction a sort of psychoanalysis: the text an ego, and capitalism its id. (There are variants of course: Derrida, cocooned inside his sentences, was transformed into a political butterfly when he crossed the Atlantic.) That is, for all its sophistication it has a too simple-minded theory of the mind, and of how the environment affects it, especially at its higher reaches.
The reductio ad absurdum of the behaviourist approach is a certain kind of conspiracy theory; an example of which is referenced in footnote vii. In the clip Obama is condemned as a socialist; one of the pieces of evidence is that he attended a conference where there were left wing speakers… The assumption here is that there is no mind at all. It is simply a sponge, soaking up reality. This seems linked to a peculiar failure in their minds: an inability to get beneath the surface of things, which comes from a very simplistic rationality that has no feel for the causes, both social and individual, that underpin an often vast collection of facts. Thus all those “invisible” forces like historical trends, institutional pressures, social conformity, all of which rely on interpretation, are turned into literal embodiments: 12 old socialists in some control room. It is the worldview of the adolescent, with an overly developed, but at the same time quite limited, reason. Deconstructionists and Marxists are much more sophisticated than this - they understand, for example, that facts have to be explained by causes, and not the other way around -, except when they are attacked, as with the Sokal Hoax, when their anger removes all nuance. But the core of their thinking can sometimes be a little too close to these simple-minded extremes; and for the same reason: a too narrow rationality, and a reliance on too few causes; which can become reified. This may explain their dislike and misunderstanding, particularly of the creative aspects, of the hard sciences; for they are projecting their own way of thinking onto it.
“[H]e just doesn’t know much about the intellectual history of Europe, and the whole discussion hasn’t induced him to take a very hard look, either. If he had, maybe he would have encountered things like the First World War and the doubts about science that it instilled in some of the best thinkers, things like phenomenology, which was an obvious ploy to separate philosophy from the philosophy of science and in some sense signalled the end of positivism (positivism really appears to be the philosophy that Sokal espouses, by the way), things like the economic modernization movement in France in the 30’s, whose proponents preached tirelessly for science and efficiency – and implicitly for the modern and efficient economy of fascism as well.” (David Bell)
Barsky has recourse to a featherweight to support his criticism of Sokal’s view, which is almost identical to Chomsky’s, that the Left has traditionally been for rationality and science and against obscurantism. If we were to take this quote seriously the only conclusion to draw is Barsky believes that the subject of his book is “implicitly” fascist; which of course he does not. It's an extraordinary performance, and shows the intellectual contortions he has to commit in order to try and separate Chomsky from his bêtes noires. To use a Freudian expression; he is acting out his own inner conflict. So we see him as he waltzes around the debate, sometimes stepping up close to Alan and Jean, but then turning quickly away; sometimes gliding over to Julia and Jacques; only to pass by Jean and Alan at a Foxtrot; until, at last, in the arms of Jules and Felix, he is spun into a wild freestyle, where everything goes. The music ends, and we watch him, as he stumbles off the dance floor, dazed and not a little confused…
Just a few comments on the David Bell quote. Positivism has been a term of abuse for about a century, and is used mostly to attack people who advocate the existence of an objective world, which can be studied rationally, using standards of truth and falsehood. Most of the people who use the designation neither know what it means or the positions of the thinkers they attack. For both examples and an analysis of this phenomenon see Ernest Gellner’s Positivism against Hegelianism in his Relativism and the Social Sciences; whose starting off point is the confrontation between Karl Popper and Theodor Adorno (what is particularly interesting in this debate is that both sides attack a “Third Man”, which appears to be the Positivist caricature). For an example of the heyday of actually existing Positivism see Owen Chadwick's The Secularizaton of the European Mind in the 19th Century. One wonders who these great minds were that turned away from science: Russell, Einstein, Popper… Is Edmund Husserl in their league? But even if we accept that he is, was his work, which preceded the First World War by many years, so clearly a move against science (I assume this is what he means, as I’m not sure it is possible to separate philosophy from the philosophy of science)? After all, he believed in an objective world, it was just that he thought we could study as if it didn’t have an independent existence – our experience of it was enough. The predominant strains of Marxism have always seen themselves as scientific; while many on the social democratic and socialist Left would have self-identified with Sokal’s statement. Thus the essence of his comments is true; but he exaggerates just a little: Sokal is too generous with the Left. There have been significant thinkers who have preferred irrationalism and mysticism; such as Western Marxism. And since the 1960s a whole new wave has emerged: it is the counter-culture, which is a mixture of many elements, some Left, some Right, and much of it against science and reason. Since the 1970s it has even had its own sociology:
“The idea that each man creates his own world, presumably as he wills, precludes the imposition of extraneous rules (e.g. logic) on him… So the charity or courtesy which tolerates any abandonment of logical or other order in the object of inquiry, is, in a sense, quite properly extended to the inquiry itself, which then combines all the wildness of a private unconstrained world with all the abstruse obscurity of sociological ‘theory’. The accounts are both private and abstruse, wild and jargon ridden. They freely violate the logic and grammar of the terms employed. This doubly based unintelligibility endows them with a depth which inspires awe and admiration in the adept… Let us face it, they do not write well, and the stylistic failings spring from these very features – careless neologism, a slapdash indifference to precision and rigour in exposition, an eager willingness to say more and to say again rather than refining what one had already said, and so forth.” (The re-enchantment industry in Spectacles and Predicaments)
Ernest Gellner is describing ethnomethodology, but he could be writing of Deleuze and Guattari. What his description shows is how ideas, politics, and personal identity, are all mixed up and fused; thus any attack on one is an attack on them all. We see this with Barsky:
“Sokal and Bricmont do not render any services when they tell us to keep out because we are too stupid to understand what is going on, and they do not support the Left by telling people what to think or how to interpret the world, and in both of these tendencies they betray their dear Left case. It is useful to engage in self-mockery and self-criticism because it can raise intellectual standards; what we do not need is another academic mandarin to dictate policy.”
These extraordinary views are in response to the three arguments of Sokal and Bricmont I outlined above; the authors’ insistence on rational inquiry; and their examples exposing the errors and empty jargon of well respected and, it seems from Barsky’s own account, “powerful” intellectuals. His mistake is to conflate the suggestion we think clearly with a prescription as to what to think. He mistakes a way of thinking, depending on reason and evidence, and which tries to be as clear as possible, with its content. A mistake that is inevitable if Gellner is right: for here the criticism is perceived as an attack on a person’s character, because their ideas cannot be conceived other than as an expression of their own personality. Two simple analogies to show why this is wrong: when you tell a child not to put their hand in the fire because it will burn you are not at the same time telling her how she should dress. Or, more pertinently perhaps, if you correct her when she mistakes France for America, you are not telling her to like either one or the other; or to be become a geographer, when she gets older. But imagine if she disagreed with you; and wouldn’t accept your opinion: “you mustn’t tell me what to think!” At what point, if she won’t accept any instruction, does it become impossible for her to learn anything at all? Though later she writes books about Leibniz and Spinoza…
If we were to take Barsky’s comments seriously we would leave political analysis to the politicians, and hope they would raise standards by exercising “self-mockery and self-criticism”. This is not serious, and doesn’t even occur in most academic disciplines; that proceed through revision and other people’s (often mild) critique. But if we accepted this solution, what is going to be the likely outcome? Will these “Critical Theorists” stop using a jargon filled vocabulary, with pages full of errors and poorly understood concepts, which only those with a PHD can “understand”? Are we confident they will do so? Would they warn us in advance that they are really only mucking around, so that we can make a reasoned decision as to study them? I think we already know the answers to these questions: to conflate one’s ideas with one’s personality, and to abuse a thinker because he shows that some of those ideas are errors, is not going to lead to future enlightenment. There is too much personal investment in the whole enterprise (and which seems to have an almost complete lack of self-awareness). Moreover, is it likely a professor of literature will master theoretical physics or mathematics on his own, without outside help, through “self-mockery and self-criticism”? For that is what he will have to do, if he wants to properly understand the value of Lacan, Deleuze and the others.
Before attacking Sokal what is first required is a plausible defence of the systematic use of error and wilful obscurity. But read that last quote again: he commits the very sin of which he accuses Sokal and Bricmont; for if he follows his own rules he should recommend only that they stay within the boundaries of they own personalities; and do, I assume, Woody Allen routines on the psychoanalyst’s couch. In fact he goes beyond this, and does the very thing that they don’t do: “dictate policy”. For they must stay within the confines of their own discipline! (Remember what they actually suggest, and look how Barsky has twisted it; it is this intolerant misrepresentation that exposes his intent.) Yet this is precisely what thinkers like Deleuze and Guattari are celebrated for refusing to do… He is perfectly happy for a whole range of (his) thinkers to trespass on someone else’s territory. However, when the owners announce that the stolen game is poisonous, the poachers and their friends shout them down: “shut up and get out of here!” We can do anything according to our rules; and we’re not going to listen to anybody else’s is the attitude; which is a little too close some aspects of the popular culture, and suggests its influence.
Barsky’s confusions highlight the central problem of a relativist approach. It cannot adequately cope with a body of knowledge that proclaims universalism, whether it be Chemistry or a fundamentalist religion. For if it asserts that everything is relative, it both denies its opponent’s validity and proclaims that its self is universally true. It is a hard one to get around; no wonder Barsky staggers off the dance floor.
I know I can have a rational argument with Sokal and Bricmont when it comes to politics and philosophy, for I believe I have enough knowledge and talent to do so. However, I also know that in physics l have to submit to them; and I don’t have any choice. We have to both acknowledge our strengths and admit our weaknesses; that we are lords in our own domains, but paupers in another’s. Some professors from the humanities find this difficult to accept; in large part I suspect because it undermines the image of the all-knowing Wiseman. Once upon a time this stance may have been possible; today it is a myth.
Various general statements about postmodernism are quoted from Chomsky. Many appear just as uncompromising as those given by Sokal and Bricmont; yet because they are general statements he often qualifies them; thus in one passage he says “Not that everything is wrong.” What Barsky misses is that Chomsky is talking in a general way, and that is why he makes these concessions; whereas Sokal and Bricmont are simply describing the particular examples they have exposed. That said, there is no doubt at all that he agrees with them:
“But when I read, you know, Derrida, or Lacan, or Althusser, or any of these – I just don’t understand it. It’s like words passing in front of my eyes: I can’t follow the arguments, anything that looks like a description of fact looks wrong to me. So maybe I’m missing a gene or something, it’s possible. But my honest opinion is, I think it’s all fraud.” (Understanding Power: The Indispensable Chomsky)