July 15, 2003

No modernist seriousness here

In a response to the recent post on demoralization of humanities' academics at Invisible Adjunct, the Happy Tutor says:

"The antihumanist left versus the humanist right. Surely, the solution is a postmodern humanist left? How? Well, read the following authors: Martial, Diogenes, Rabelais, Jesus the trickster hero of the Gospels, Swift, Gay, Pope, Wilde."

The Happy Tutor has struck the right note in making the turn away from an inward-looking academic politics that has run its course. You can only march on the conservatives in the various humanities department for so long. Eventually you need to look outside the horizons of academic politics to see what is happening in Washington or Canberra, to think about the nation and what is going on in the economy.

But I'm going to read Richard Rorty rather than the texts the Happy Tutror suggests. Why? It seem to me that he articulates American liberalism in a postmodern way and he does so by engaging with continental philosophy----the anti-humanist left.

I find Rorty's engagement appealing in contrast to the liberal humanist pointing the finger at the anti-humanist left in academia. This signifies that the latter are somehow responsible for nihilism. I find this upsetting because nihilism is much broader than what is happen in academia, and the practices of American poststructuralist theory are more an expression of nihilism that its cause. What is ignored in the finger pointing is the possibility that something may be wrong with liberal humanism;that its values and understandings may also have been hollowed out and so it stands in need of some restoration.

Reading Rorty enables me to understand the liberal humanists in the humanities; those in the middle between the conservative humanist right and the anti-humanist left; those without a base, who are not traditionalists but nonetheless have convictions about "what sustains people". He takes us beyond the cry of frustation and the expression of pain.

Rorty engages with specific texts and is explicit about the moves to render poststructuralist French theory palatable. This rendering palatable gives us an American Foucault in the American humanities that is quite different from the French Foucault. The former is the Foucault of disciplinary power with philosophical substance of Nietzsche and Heidegger strained out. Rorty blocks the French Foucault openly, and he is quite explicit in doing this in order to make things safe for American liberal democracy.

In doing so Rorty wears the hat of pragmatism and offers Americans a postmodern liberalism in which philosophy provides no foundation for politics. Philosophy is reserved for private life, where it can be ironic in terms of individual self-realization. This leaves political and moral traditions to govern public life. Rorty holds that tradition and convention are far more powerful forces than reason in the social construction of life and in ensuring social cohesion in the nation.

So how is the rendering safe for American social democracy done?

Rorty's gatekeeping for liberal democracy is done by suggesting that the two options for those who reject scientism or philosophy as a part of science (positivism) and its over evaluation of science. These are philosophy linked to poetics (Nietzsche or Heidegger) and philosophy linked to politics (Foucault). These pathways are different ways of reacting to the hegemony of scientism once the baggage of the inherited Platonic philosophical tradition (with its brood nest of entrenched dualisms) has been sloughed off----found our way out of the flybottle.

Rorty did take the aesthetic turn with Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. He linked philosophy to poetics because he holds that fictional literature can powerfully illuminate the conditions of our lives, often in more concrete and illuminating ways than theory.

Rorty also develops the pathway of philosophy linked to politics. This pathway is signified by the pragmatist John Dewey as redescribed by Rorty. It is a turning away from natural science to engineers and social workers and a Baconian conception of an instrumental reason having maximal control over nature. This implies an acceptance of a technologized pragmatic culture controlled by a social democratic community to achieve the greatest happiness of the greatest number or greater human freedom. For Rorty it is utilitarianism in the public domain and freedom in the private domain.

This is politics as social hope and the reformist social democratic politics of piecmeal nudges and cautions with respect to particular issues at particular times. It is social hope because the aim is to make us happier by enabling us to cope more successfully with the physical environment and each other.

This downhome Amercian conception of philosophy linked to politics is contrasted with a continental (ie., Nietzsche & Heidegger) conception of philosophy linked to politics, which Rorty actively repels. This is politics as a relentless critique of everything, with its mood of despair, deep pessimism and revolutionary fervor; a peudo-politics that involves "a sort of continual self-correction of theory, with no conceivable relation to practice" or social democratic politics. This was developed in Achieving Our Country (1997), where Rorty attacked academic theorists as impotent spectators distanced from the hurly-burly world of political reform.

This negative conception of philosophy's link to politics is that of the anti-humanist left or postmodern theory, and it is represented by Adorno and Foucault. Rorty rejects this politics as radical critique on political grounds: it has nothing to offer us in solving concrete problems. For "we liberals in the United States" says Rorty this politics is all rhetoric and posturing that tries to find a public political counterpart to a private search for autonomy as self over-coming.

Rorty's key blocking move against this political Romanticism is made with the private public distinction. By divorcing personal freedom from public responsibility he blocks the projection of private autonomy onto public politics and so turns everything into politics.

But he makes another blocking move, this time against the "politics of difference" crowd in the American academy. He terms them unpatriotic on the grounds that they refuse to rejoice in the country they inhabit; and they repudiate the idea of national identity and the emotion of national pride or patriotism.

In this way Rorty makes philosophy linked to politics safe for American liberal democracy. I am not suggesting that Rorty offers a satisfactory expression of what the Happy Tutor calls a postmodern humanist left---that is for others to say. But he does give a considered response to the cry of the liberal humanists in the academy.

Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at July 15, 2003 12:11 AM | TrackBack

I recommend Toulmin's Cosmopolis. Also pragmatist, but to me a more thoroughgoing critique of present modernity than Rorty's. Rorty retains too much of the amused, detached spectatorship which I think is the Achilles heel of American liberalism. Someone who isn't able to pull off the private irony / public tradition split will be reprelled by liberalism.

Nietzsche as an academic. Nietzsche actually lived an extremely tame, uneventful life. He was also apparently completely conventional about matters of class and etiquette. He could not marry because there was no one correct for him to marry. He seems to have been driven by the high bourgeois need to surpass others and to accomplish something great, and thus unwilling to accept any sort of common life. When he became disillusioned with the university, he had to find something even more great to accomplish. So he concocted the Superman. I have admired N's critical and analytical thinking for decades, but his constructive or visionary thinking seems damaged to be.

Posted by: Zizka on July 15, 2003 12:38 AM

What a tour de force of a post! Read it carefully, absorbing what I could. Very condensed. I hope you will tease out the implications at greater length. I have read some of the Rorty you reference, and found it frustrating. I was trained primarily in lit crit and I think he is an impossibly precious belles lettrist. He could neve have gotten an advanced degree in lit writing like Walter Pater. His theory of fiction is too effete for my taste. I prefer Horace who saw it as moral instruction. Art may be a mirror held up to nature, but the nature that grins back in Horace is the human ape.

Posted by: The Happy Tutor on July 15, 2003 12:38 PM
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