In Fantasyland: How American Went Haywire, Kurt Andersen spends several paragraphs trashing me. He attacks my 1998 book, Aliens in America and then adds some red-baiting for the win. But rather than providing evidence of some kind of leftist contempt for reason, what he proves is that he either can't read or is a liar.
First: he says I was "delighted on principle" to "defend the veracity of people claiming to be not just witnesses but abductees." What I actually say is that "the advocatory conventions of the UFO discourse have expanded to defend the veracity of people claiming to be not just witnesses but abductees." The paragraph is describing the ways that UFO discourse in the 1980s differs from that in the 1960s. In the 1950s and 1960s, there were scientific and governmental investigations of UFOs that had a degree of legitimacy. For example, there was a Symposium on Unidentified Flying Objects held by the House Science and Astronautics Committee in July 1968. In 1966 Gerald Ford wrote a letter to the House Armed Services Committee criticizing the Air Force for dismissing a bunch of Michigan sitings. Likewise in the 50s and 60s, most UFO researchers wanted to keep "contactees" at arms-length. Their claims were considered too wild, beyond the pale, likely hoaxes. By the eighties, the kinds of methods and testimonies prominent in UFO research had changed. Hypnosis was used to recover memories said to be memories of abduction. Andersen either can't read for context (including an entire sentence), doesn't understand how to read a history of a changing discourse, or is deliberately taking me out of context so as to have an easy punching bag. I expect the latter (but this might be too generous -- why choose?).
Second: Andersen says I "celebrate" "every attitude and approach that appalls [sic] him." Celebrate? Aliens in America is dark, depressing, an account of the collapse of the conditions of possibility of democracy. It reads the nineties in terms of paranoia, what I will later with Zizek call the "decline of symbolic efficiency." Instead of either a postmodern embrace of a multitude of language games or a Habermasian insistence on the commensurability of languages, I accept the former as an unbearable condition that democratic theorists have failed to acknowledge. UFO belief and the UFO discourse is the example, case study, and symptom I use to make the argument. In his attack, Andersen renders as my opinion or position what is actually my description of the way UFO discourse functions. So he says I reject the presumption that there is a public anchored in reason. What I point out is that this presumption no longer holds in the US -- the fragmentation, the competing conceptions of the real, the fact that there is no set of common standards to which all agree -- is the condition we are in. My statement is descriptive, not normative. I write:
"UFO belief thus challenges the presumption that there is some 'public' that shares a notion of reality, a concept of reason, and a set of criteria by which claims to reason and rationality are judged."
In light of the Right's failure to acknowledge climate change, this passage isn't just accurate -- it's prescient.
Third: Andersen says that I claim that the norms of public reason are "oppressive and exclusionary." Again, he takes a phrase out of context. What I write is:
"Various Marxists, feminists, and multiculturalists have stressed the importance of knowledge gained at the margins; the importance of the standpoint of the oppressed as epistemologically superior falsely disembedded view from nowhere."
I link this view to the position that one can never really know the position of another person and the conclusion that this means that we cannot and should not judge what another person claims to know or experience. Then I criticize it. Andersen attributes to me a view I explicitly criticize. I point out that the problem of multiple ways of knowing is that it is depoliticizing because it is epistemologically confused: there are no common standard, no common reality. At the end of the twentieth century, we were awash in information, with no capacity to judge or assess it because there is no general reality, common reason. The political problem is then how to deal with this absence of a symbolic order.
Fourth: Andersen fails to understand any of my points regarding links, conspiracy theory, and paranoia. I argue that in a setting marked by the absence of a common sense of reason, problems are not solved by more information or knowledge. This is because there is not an underlying truth according to which information and knowledge can be assessed. Adding more and more information thus exacerbates rather than solves problems, especially political problems. In the late nineties, this problem was associated with data glut, search engine design, problems of verification. To an extent, we've let our technologies solve it for us. But it still comes up a lot in politics, often deployed by the Right to block action: we need more information because the science of climate change isn't settled. We also sometimes use it when we don't want to accept information we don't like: a second and third and fourth opinion following a bad diagnosis. At any rate, my argument in Aliens is that under the conditions of the absence of a common reason more information will never decide for us.
Fifth: Andersen ends by pointing out that I am a communist and making a gesture to Goebbels. This is the all too conventional obfuscatory move of equating communism and Nazism. It's used by those who are weak thinkers and politically suspect. Andersen is both.