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October 15, 2006


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Bob Allen

At issue is the problem of postmodern theory, the notion that there is no over arching metanarrative, that one person's "reality" is as valid as another. See the uproar over the Columbia University students' "attack" on the Minutemen. This was spun as an anti-free speech episode on the MSM, Fox, etc. The old, modernist view rears its head: the Minutemen by their nature wish to deny work and therefore life to a certain class of humanity, they are reactionary and violent to the core. Naive pacifist types are fooled into thinking this is a "free speech" issue in order to derail a visceral response to these incipient fascists. What I'm saying is, there are certain absolutes ignored by postmodernism..


"Even though I like to think that I don't think in terms of cultural hierarchies (opera over television, jazz over pop), I guess that, deep down, I probably do. I expect academic work to be richer, more detailed, more compelling, with a richer analysis, than pop culture. The really sick feeling is thinking that everything I've just said is absolutely correct--which means that the problem is with my thinking, my writing, my 'work.'"

How far does this principle extend? We don't, for instance, extend it to doctors, engineers, mechanics, and carpenters. In these areas we hold that experience does matter and that the "opinions" of these individuals has a greater likelihood than the views of one who has no experience in these areas. Why doesn't the same principle apply to historians, cultural studies, political science, the social science? Is there a fundamental difference in the nature of this research that places all views on par with one another?

Adam Kotsko

The funny thing is that jazz used to *be* pop.

I plan on reading Jameson's Big Book of Postmodernism soon, so I'll have to get back to everyone on the proper postmodern response to the Minutemen.


For me the issue is not postmodern theory because I don't think there is such a thing as postmodern theory. I think there is a postmodern condition, which is better understood in terms of changes wrought by capitalism, changes that psychoanalysis is well positioned to explain. In your example, I would say that Fox news exemplifies the postmodern condition, the deployment of a rights claim in a way that disavows rights as key components of a liberal-legal order.

Sinthome, I actually think that we extend this view more and more to doctors--second opinions, alternative medicine, critiques of pharmacology, etc. With mechanics and carpenters, though, that's a more interesting question. I wonder if it has something to do with materiality.

Adam, good point re pop. But I'm not sure it helps in the immediate situation; rather, it's a kind of 'long view' insight.

Anthony Paul Smith

I think that movie is called Dave. I liked it as a kid.


I suspect the difference between doctors, mechanics, carpenters and political theorists is that the first group of experts presumably can point to certain irrefutable "facts" as the basis for their judgements. Either you have strep or you do not, either you can fix the broken chair or not. While I would never deny that there are certain facts in politics, it seems that they are more susceptible to manipulation -perhaps because so much of what we think is impacted by the ontological assumptions we make. We see immigrants as either dangerous (they take jobs and resources from "real Americans") or they represent the essence of what America is all about (Land of opportunity, we are a nation of immigrants). And these ontological assumptions are fairly fluid, subject to the latest FOX news terror alert.

I don't think that means the insight of a movie and the insight of theoretical work can be simply conflated. The fact that your work and the movie end up in the same place doesn't invalidate the depth of your work. Understanding entails more than simply drawing conclusions - the insight I have gained from your work is invaluable. While I might enjoy a movie more intensly (Bob Roberts comes to mind), I cannot imagine a film providing the depth of insight that good theoretical research can provide.


No, no, no and no.

Where do you think these cultural workers get their analytical chops? Might they read critical theory? Might they study history? Might they stumble across Zizek Politics and decide to rethink a film?

Yes, culture is exciting, it is consumption (at least the part of which I partake) - but the work behind the scenes is informed by what? Critical academic work is difficult, it pays poorly, it is subject to ridicule by those in power. Must be something of value there.


"I actually think that we extend this view more and more to doctors--second opinions, alternative medicine, critiques of pharmacology, etc. With mechanics and carpenters, though, that's a more interesting question. I wonder if it has something to do with materiality."

This is a great observation! I don't know if it's a matter of materiality (if by this you mean those who work with a concrete object), or in the very nature of the symbolic itself. I was drawing directly on Plato's argument from the Crito. Crito comes to Socrates after the trial, trying to persuade him to escape. In presenting his reasons, he worries over the "opinions of the multitudes" who will believe that Socrates is either admitting his guilt or that Socrates' friends are bad friends for not saving. Socrates responds by arguing that we should only listen to those who have "wisdom" and draws an analogy to training for competitions and how we wouldn't listen to the doctor or trainer who lacked wisdom in these matters.

Perhaps I have a romantic and nostalgic position of the past, but it seems to me that distrust of "experts" or the commodification of expertise (selecting the expert "opinion" you find most agreeable) is a relatively new phenomenon. Granted, I speak from a position that is effected by this shift, but this sort of commodification assumes that the consumer already knows how to distinguish the truly wise expert from the unwise expert (using Socrates' language). But why do we require experts at all if we already have this knowledge? Don't I go to a specific minister precisely because I believe this minister has knowledge of religious matters that will enhance my soul? And don't I consult various academics because I believe they possess a knowledge of political theory and history that I myself lack? If, as a consumer, I can pick and choose among these clamoring experts, this suggests that I already suppose myself to be a "savvy" consumer who knows the expert that is truly valuable. At least, that's my charitable reading. The uncharitable reading would be that I "purchase" the expert that most suits my ideological and rhetorical aims.


Interesting, Sinthome. I see things a bit differently, perhaps because I teach in a liberal arts college. My understanding of 'education' was training in critical thinking. So, the educated person has the skills to verify the claims presented to her. The strength of science was supposed to be verifiability. Scholarship proceeds by providing evidence for claims advanced. So, I don't think that the Socratic model applies--particularly after the Enlightenment when reason is supposed to characterize freedom.


That's a good point, although Socrates did set out on the mission you describe, cross-examining all the "wise" of the city of Athens to determine whether they had the wisdom they claimed to have. Euthyphro is my favorite example as he resembles the Pat Robertson of the ancient world. He claims that he knows all there is to know about piety and the will of the Gods, and that he's never made a false prophecy (as a testament to Plato's humor, Euthyphro is prophecizes, at the beginning of the dialogue, that Socrates will be found innocent... We all know how that turned out). When Socrates cross-examinines him, asking him to teach him what piety is so he can defend himself against the charge of impiety at the trial, Euthyphro is unable to formulate his "knowledge" in a non-contradictory way. Eventually he flees, rather than face more of Socrates' questioning. Perhaps Socrates was an Enlightenment thinker before his time?

When Socrates suggests that we should only concern ourselves with those who have wisdom or a knowledge of virtue, he is simply claiming that we should only be concerned with those who genuinely know, otherwise we'll pervert our action. It seems to me that one of the central marks of the Enlightenment project is a distrust of authority. This comes out clearly in Descartes' first meditation, where it's clear he feels he's been deceived by the Jesuits that trained him and needs to find a foundation through reason alone. It comes out more clearly in Kant's "What is Enlightenment?" essay, wehre he describes Enlightenment as humanities liberation from self-imposed immaturity (the need to be ruled by an authority).

Yet this project was always accompanied, as you point out, by persuasion through facts or reason. If humanity has no need of authority, then this is because we are able to discover the truth through our own reason and observation without having to be told these facts. Perhaps what is different now is that in addition to authority being called into question, facts themselves have been called into question as well? That is, in relating to you as a political scientist who has studied the phenomenon of conspiracy extensively, I nonetheless have to recognize that the "facts" you marshall to support your case are a result of the distinctions you make and your own institutional point of view, and that a very different account of conspiracy theories could be given on the basis of other distinctions. Where facts are no longer solid and transcendent things that are independent of mind, it then follows that one set of facts is as good as another such that despite your education and research, your claims are on equal footing with Joe down the street who advocates a polar opposite view.

But is this really the case? You evokes the difference between material practices and intellectual(?) practices before? It seems to me that a stock broker or economist straddles this divide. I go to my stock broker (if I had one) because I believe he has a certain know-how with money and markets. But really he's just working on a particular social science theory, isn't he? From the standpoint of politics, aren't there testable hypotheses in political science and stubborn facts? Didn't most of us on the left who took the time to think about it and who didn't get caught up in nationalistic fury predict everything that's now happening today in the lead up to the Iraq war and Bush's famous "Axis of Evil" speech that was seen as polarizing the world? And wasn't that foresight based on sound theoretical principles, along with an understanding of ideology and sociology? That is, aren't there some people the statesman should listen to if s/he is wise, and some that should not be listened to?

Apparently I'm still coming to terms with postmodernism and have a difficult time accepting the thesis that it's all just simulacra and points of view.


And incidentally, our entire curriculum is organized around promoting "critical thinking". I can't think of many colleges or universities that don't share those values, though administrations influenced by the changes taking place at the secondary level are certainly putting pressure on faculty and departments to change that in the name of "measuring performance outcomes".


Sinthome--I wonder if your 'difficulty coming to terms with postmodernism' accounts for the lecturing on Socrates/Plato. And I wonder this because I don't think the matter is one of either postmodernism (as I said above) or something that can be dealt with through nostalgia for a master.

In political science, there is a great deal of argument about testable hypotheses, proper data, analytical rigor--just as there is in another disciplines that claim to be sciences. Many of those who are 'listened to', as you put it, are listened to because of their institutional positions. And, the matter is more complicated again once we ask who is listening. To my mind the difficulties in this domain tell us we are dealing with the collapse of symbolic efficiency/crisis of investiture/lack of the big Other today.


Jodi, I hope I didn't come across as lecturing. I tend to develop things in more detail than necessary because, given that the Other doesn't exist, one can't assume the background of who's being spoken to or how they've read certain material. For instance, your suggestion that the Socratic model of inquiry is authoritarian and in opposition to the Enlightenment model is very different than the way I would read the Socratic dialogues, so it becomes necessary for me to explain why I believe this is a misreading.

Anyway, I wasn't making a nostalgic call for masters, but contrasting one way of looking at the world (if it ever existed, which is why I referred to nostalgia, not because I want to return to it) with our contemporary age. How is one to determine what's unique to our condition without contrasting it to the structuration of something else that doesn't possess these features? The thesis that there is a lack of the big Other today implies that there wasn't one at some previous point. The nostalgia I referred to in the original post wasn't a call for return to this prior time, but a note of caution, suggesting that perhaps this other relation to the symbolic, at another point in history, premised on a trust in the symbolic never existed but is a myth (just as the American West as the domain of rugged individuals making it on their own never existed).

Your observations about the emphasis on evidence *in* political science aside, there does seem to be a trend towards treating all evidence as merely opinion *by the media systems that report on these findings and the politicians that refer to these findings*. In the original diary you remark that you believe that some academic work is more compelling which indicates that you believe some speakers are more credible and more worth listening to (Socrates' thesis), but it's likely that from the standpoint of Penn and Teller or a television news show, you're just another talking head that allows them to advance their frame by providing "expert evidence and testimony", when in fact the frame is already decided and who speaks on these shows is chosen because they are consistent with this frame, not because they are more compelling. Rightwing news shows seem to indicate this way of thinking about facts most clearly in their disdain of "experts", treating experts as just creators of fictions and thereby authorizing themselves to select the experts most in accord with their pre-existent frames. In other words, I wasn't referring to what political scientists or academics think about their work, but how it is portrayed in popular culture through the likes of CNN or Rush Limbaugh, where the research of experts is no longer invested with the mantel of any particular legitimacy. For instance, a lawyer wishing to defend his client might interview a number of different psychiatrists until he finds one who supports his case, regardless of whether that psychiatrists relationship to "facts" is well founded. This can be seen very clearly among rightwing religious groups that cast about for "scientists" who claim to demonstrate certain things about homosexuality (that homosexuals are child molestors, that they can be "cured", that they're more prone to crime, and whatever other nonsense they dream up), not caring about the genuine facts of the matter. Or as a top adviser to the administration put it to the reporter Ron Suskind, "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality-- judiciously, as you will --we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors... and you, all of you, will be left to study what we do." In this passage, all of us are the "fools" (in Lacan's sense) judiciously studying reality, *believing in facts* and that some speakers are more credible than others, while there is no reality in itself and thus no facts, only invented realities.

Thus when you write: "To my mind the difficulties in this domain tell us we are dealing with the collapse of symbolic efficiency/crisis of investiture/lack of the big Other today", this was exactly my point. What is postmodernism if not this crisis of investiture/lack of the big Other and collapse of symbolic efficiency? Isn't this a good deal of what Lyotard meant by the collapse of metanarratives? Or perhaps I just don't understand what postmodernism is. Or are you saying that postmodern *theory* isn't the cause (I would agree), but that postmodernism is a condition (I would agree again)? Anyway, time for me to creep back to my college that doesn't teach critical thinking or liberal arts and return to lurking. Analyzing our contemporary cultural condition is too much for my nostalgic authoritarian mind.


I felt like it was lecturing because I've been lecturing all term on the Greeks (and we still aren't up to Aristotle). I read Socrates/early Plato differently from the way you do (obviously) and find it very much the discourse of a Master (with all the boys saying, yes, Socrates, no, Socrates, well of course, Socrates). And, I'm also not particularly interested in debating readings of Socrates, so it didn't seem necessary.

For Zizek, the decline of symbolic efficiency refers to a change in the way that the big Other is lacking today; do, I don't think that we have to posit the fantasy of a time when one 'existed' (since clearly this makes no sense); the point is a change in the way it doesn't exist--so, now it knows it doesn't exist. I don't think we disagree on this point, but maybe I missing something.

I think the difference between my view and what you call Socrates' thesis above regarding credibility is quite large, particularly with regard to a claim of who is worth listening to in the abstract. At the very best, I could only give a weak defense of why I prefer to read, cite, draw on some over others (not the same as listening), recognizing in advance my own failure to ground the position in anything but an amalgam of custom, training, interest, and power (a view that I think Plato comes close to expressing in Crito but, it seems to me, only hesistantly). I would also add an aesthetic component here, a matter of taste.


Jodi, I'm afraid that this discussion has been obscured a bit by my evocation of Socrates (who I think can also be read as a hysteric), who admittedly I love a great deal both for his own texts and through my identification with Lacan, Badiou, and Zizek whom I see as a Socratic figure.

I'm having difficulty seeing where the difference is regarding the grounds for credibility. For me, one of the reasons I take Lacan seriously is because I believe him to have a certain knowledge based on his clinical experience. I suppose him as a subject that knows. Similarly, I take Badiou seriously because I believe that he has a knowledge of set theory and can therefore speak intelligently on these things. I do not take Sokal very seriously, because I don't believe that he has a knowledge of what he's critiquing, and even a very sound understanding of the philosophy of science. This, of course, doesn't entail that I blindly endorse claims by these thinkers and I do look for arguments and explanations for their claims. And, of course, there are aesthetic considerations as well. Are you using a different criteria of credibility?

In the Crito I take it that Socrates is saying that we shouldn't let popular opinion determine our action. In a Lacanian context, this would consist in not giving way on our desire, even if it brings us to be locked away in a tomb with our dead brother. That is, I hope that I only concern myself with those who can see and understand and do not worry over the rest as this would lead me to compromise my desire. Of course, this is easier said than done. Admittedly I have a very Lacanianized reading of Socrates.

Anyway, my identifications are neither here nor there in this discussion, which is about how the our way of managing the non-existence of the big Other has changed. I quite like your reflexive way of putting it: "now it knows it doesn't exist".

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