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November 08, 2006


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Amazing post, Jodi! This might be the best thing I've read on I Cite since I first began lurking a few months ago. This very much helps me to articulate some of the reservations that have cloyed in the back of my own mind with Berube and similar arguments. Berube would like to argue that there's nothing overtly political about the liberal arts classroom as most professors don't overtly discuss politics or candidates and that when they do so, do so by "looking at all sides". Yet he misses the point that the liberal arts classroom is itself a political stance.

If I teach my lit students how to read in a particular way, examining historical context, various literary devices such as metaphors, etc., the manner in which the reader is constructed, and so on, I've already formed a particular subjectivity. Doesn't the simple teaching of these techniques already change how the student might read or view the Bible, putting them at odds with their religious community? That is, techniques of reading, observing, arguing, and so on are already political stances. I think The Exorcism of Emily Rose makes this point nicely in the difference between neurological explanations of Emily's woes and supernatural explanations.

I find myself wondering, though, why not just say so what? I don't like Berube's centrism, but, *hypothetically speaking*, why shouldn't I unabashedly declare that only discourse based on evidence, avoidance of informal fallacies, consistency, and so on? That is, why not engage in such a university discourse? And why not simply be a militant of Enlightenment ideals? Yes, they are based on power, but why not simply embrace that particular gesture of power? In some respects, this seems to be what Badiou's gesture of a truth-procedure is about: wholeheartedly accepting the consequences that follow from a particular decision that cannot itself be ultimately justified.


Great Post Jodi. It would seem liberalism always must assume what it is trying to prove - that "reasoned debate" must always be defined by what a reasonable liberal would qualify as reasonable. But I am curious if he makes use of Rawls in his argument? The reason I ask is that it seems Berube evokes an argument similar to the "original position" - all things being equal, without knowing where you end up in the pecking order, what would a reasonable person choose? My problem with Rawl's version of this argument is that he seems to assume the result he was trying to obtain in the first place.


Sinthome--thanks! glad you like the post.

On the so what question--if I've understood Badiou correctly (a big if), he advocates new signifiers, that is, new master signifiers. In the case here, it would mean moving S1 from below the bar to the place of S2. So, Reason is the master signifier anchoring everything in place, just because it is (law is law, in other words). So embracing the gesture of power here would be to move from university discourse to the discourse of the master (which would then be hystericized).

Another possibility, it seems to me, is the analyst's discourse--where the stubborn object is the speaking position. I take this to be Zizek's position and where he differs from Badiou. I think this is more persuasive given the crisis of symbolic efficiency and the unavoidable instability of the discourse of the Master, particularly today.

So, we have a claim to power that would call itself reason and a disruption that presents itself as an empty, insistent, object/objection/objecting.

This latter view I find more useful, particularly because I think it allies more readily with a view of S2 as non-all.


Alain--I think you are absolutely right about Berube's assuming what he was trying to prove in the first place.

Rawls--I was thinking about the original position, too. Berube, if I rightly recall, doesn't turn to Rawls so much as he does Habermas and an actual discourse/deliberation. And, I think that you answer the question as to why not Rawls when you point to "presuming what you aim to prove"--the original position is simply a way to fill out what one thinks of as reasonable (abstracting from persons, convictions, etc).


Jodi, I take it that Badiou sees the nomination of the event as the moment of the master where the S1 is instituted, but then there's a shift into something like the university in the wake of this nomination where the subjects of the event work out the implications that follow from that event in terms of the elements composing a situation. For instance, Badiou sees the physicists working today as subjects of Galileo's nomination of that event wherein it was declared that all nature is mathematical. I take it that scientific practice in this sense would be a perfect embodiment of the university discourse.


Sinthome, ok, thanks, so is there a place for excluded elements? and, what would you say about the analyst's discourse as an alternative. Also, it seems, from your explanation, that Badiou and zizek have differing readings of university discourse in that Zizek also associates capitalism and bureaucratic socialism with university discourse.


A liberal myself, I think you're a bit harsh on Berube[eg. how is aything defined except by exclusion?]--but you always seem to burn with this pure flame.


Thanks for this post, Jodi.


Jodi, I need to think about it a bit more. After I posted my response I realized I should have clarified that what Badiou refers to as a truth has very specific qualities that would be unlike other forms of power, that are always partial and exclusionary (like capitalism and bureacratic socialism). Badiou claims that a true is "transversal" to the differences composing a situation, meaning that it doesn't fall into any of the exclusionary identities composing the situation. Nonetheless, the nomination of a truth does enact a decision and leads to the work of determining how the elements belonging to a situation can be evaluated in terms of this truth or decision. For instance, in relation to a revolutionary declaration, is this or that institution egalitarian and how would it have to be reformed (or abolished) to become egalitarian? It's only at that level that I was comparing truth-procedures and the processes of truth to the university discourse. I do not myself think that the university discourse is inherently bad... There's even a Lacanian university discourse that Lacan himself participated in!

As for the position of the analyst, I think you're probably right that there's a genuine difference between Badiou and Zizek here. Badiou has been toying with the idea that Lacanian psychoanalysis is itself a truth-procedure, but as for his philosophy proper I haven't found anything that really corresponds to the moment of the analyst or the position of the analyst.


Richard--you are welcome!

Mark--definitions can exclude meanings without themselves relying on exclusion. So, we wouldn't want to say that justice is simply defined negatively in terms of injustice or that a triangle is defined by a set of exclusions rather than a set of rules about angles and lines. Also, I'm curious as to why you think this harsh. I thought that my comments focused on his strongest and central points.

Amish Lovelock

Can Badiou be described as adopting the discourse of the master? For the master the truth has to be hidden or supressed. What is Badiou's object petit a?

Oh, and - bloody liberals! Great post!

Michael Bérubé

Just one quick question, Jodi -- would you care to go back and explain to your readers precisely where the phrase "the true purpose of an elite education" appears in my book, and who uses it, and to what ends? Because I seem to recall that it's actually Martin Kramer's phrase, and that he defends the idea of using Middle Eastern Studies programs to produce "proconsuls" for the American empire. In fact, I have the book ms on my hard drive, and -- hey, sure enough! -- here's what Kramer says:

[quote]"The United States doesn't need a lot of new grads to explain 'why they hate us.' What it needs are people who are so persuaded of its mission in the world that they are prepared to undergo some hardship and risk to advance it. I happen to think that calling that mission 'empire' just gets in the way. But whatever the mission is called, its bearers have to be persuaded that it is the worthiest of causes. That demands cultural self-esteem and self-mastery– the true purpose of an elite education. It doesn't require a working knowledge of Arabic."[close quote]

And here's my reply:

[quote]"Kramer is right, of course: if you’re interested in establishing American university graduates as proconsuls in Iraq or Syria, knowledge of Arabic is superfluous. Still, it is strange to hear right-wing partisans speak so glowingly of 'cultural self-esteem' as the 'true purpose of an elite education.' It seems like only yesterday that they were mocking African-American students and faculty for talking about bolstering the self-esteem of American minority groups. And it seems to me that they had it right the first time: the true purpose of an elite education is not the fostering of cultural self-esteem and the hardening of the conviction that one’s nation has a unique mission in the world. The true purpose of education is to try to foster in students a kind of critical cosmopolitanism, such that they learn, among other things, to question any notion that one’s nation or tribe is favored by God or destiny. Not every form of education seeks to realize this 'true purpose,' I admit. Come to think of it, there is a word for educational institutions that foster students’ cultural self-esteem and sense of self-mastery, and that graduate a cohort of people who are so persuaded of their mission in the world that they are prepared to undergo some hardship and risk to advance it. We call them 'madrassas.'"[close quote]

You're quite right, of course; there are some extremes I don't countenance, and Kramer's is one of them. That's really not a mystery; I was pretty explicit about my exclusions, and why shouldn't I be? I've read my Foucault too. But I do hope you'll notice that when I repeat Kramer's phrase in my own formulation, I drop the term "elite." I did that for a reason. For what reason? Well, I'll leave that up to (plural) you. In the meantime, here's another refrain you might consider: that's why they call it close reading.

And thanks, of course, for this post.

As for Sinthome: "Berube would like to argue that there's nothing overtly political about the liberal arts classroom as most professors don't overtly discuss politics or candidates and that when they do so, do so by 'looking at all sides.'" Please find a passage in my book where I say anything quite so vacuous or stupid as this. Because otherwise I'm going to get the sense that there are some strawmen being batted around here. Thanks.


Berube, Perhaps I expressed myself poorly. My point was that it is not really the sense that conservatives cannot express their ideas in the classroom that is being objected to, but the very idea of critical thought and independent inquiry itself. I think this is especially true in the case of social conservatives of religious stripes, who are at an inherent disadvantage arguing their case from within a liberal arts perspective. I take it that one of the central moves of the Enlightenment was to only assent to arguments that could be advanced on the basis of immanence: what can be known through reasoning (as in mathematics) or experience. How is one who bases their claims of the revelation of a sacred text such as the Bible to advance their claims in such a context? The Biblical literalist, for instance, tells me that homosexuality is an abomination and should be outlawed.

Being the Enlightenment thinker that I am or the liberally minded individual, I ask them why and point out that homosexuality is common in nature, and is no more likely to produce deliritous effects to society and the individual than other sexual practices. The person responds by telling me that the Bible tells them so. Conversation effectively ends at that point, as there's really no way for me to persuade the other person that the Bible isn't the revealed word of God. My point is that the "space of reasons" embodying legitimate appeal is entirely different for the social conservative, and what they're objecting to in the classroom isn't so much feeling that they're views don't get a fair hearing, as the very fact that they have to play the game of rational critical thought at all.

Do I think students should have to play this game? Absolutely! Do I think we form healthier societies when we discourse according to these rules? Pretty much. Do I think this particular game is neutral, obvious, or just the common sense way that giving, taking, and evaluating reasons? No. It requires a decision. How does what you call the "liberal" persuade the fundamentalist that this how argument should proceed, when the fundamentalist already rejects experience and reason as the primary source of legitimation? Moreover, it seems fairly obvious to me that if one does adopt the "liberal" criteria for providing legitimate reasons, an entire politics clearly follows... A politics that has little or no place for much of the fundamentalist's platform.


Michael (et al)--I guess I don't need to provide more context since Michael actually did. So, of course MB is right when he quotes himself. But, when he writes at the bottom of 55 and quotes above, he does not put 'elite education' in quotes in the sentence: "And it seems to me that they had it right the first time; the true purpose of an elite education is not the fostering of self-esteem and the hardening of the conviction that one's nationa has a unique mission in the world." In the next sentence, elite does not appear. But it does appear in this one, not in quotes. So, here is a repetition, presumably in your own words since there are no quotes here. (Now, if this is a matter of copyediting etc, I am more than happy to back down. If it's an oversight that in retrospect would be worded differently, then I also back down and say that at this point my remarks miss their mark. But, since I would like to call it close reading, I won't, not yet.)

Michael Bérubé

Sinthome says: "My point was that it is not really the sense that conservatives cannot express their ideas in the classroom that is being objected to, but the very idea of critical thought and independent inquiry itself. I think this is especially true in the case of social conservatives of religious stripes, who are at an inherent disadvantage arguing their case from within a liberal arts perspective."

Well, then there isn't a dime's worth of difference between us, because that's precisely what I argue in What's Liberal. (More than once!) And that's why the book devotes so much space to the question of how to think about communicative reason in terms of its inevitable exclusions. Chapter one (by example) and chapter six (by way of a rehash of Habermas - Lyotard) are about the challenge to understand that a commitment to reason and Enlightenment will _always_ marginalize religious belief as well as the positions of those one honestly considers to be unreasonable. I don't know why anyone would think that my book somehow overlooks this problem in its discussions of liberalism, because this problem is in fact at the heart of my discussions of liberalism.

And Jodi, thanks for the clarification, but I do think you left the impression that _I_ go around talking about "the true purpose of an elite education." The fact that the phrase occurs in a passage in which I take issue with Martin Kramer's apologetics for empire is really not clear in this post. Indeed, you go on to write, "the training in reason he advocates is an elite training, a cultivation of habits of mind that steer clear of extremes, that in fact are only known in relation to these extremes. Does this mean that the masses, the non-elites, are a mass of extremes, of appetites and aversions easily thrown by the rhetorics of right and left, easily drawn to fascism or communism? And does it mean that the liberal elite are the proper steerers or governors of the mass, the ones capable of avoiding extremes, perhaps because of their love for critical reason? Or, are they just an elite trying for political control from a particular power base in the educational ideological state apparatus?" This seems to me to suggest, at the very least, that _I myself_ advocate an elite form of training -- either so that the elites can govern the mass or so that the elites can secure their power in the educaitonal ISA. Actually, it seems to say this in so many words.


Michael, You've caught me in an embarrassing state-of-affairs. I had not yet read your book, but had discussed it with a friend who is working with it for an article he's currently writing and the reviews I'd read of it elsewhere. One of my pet peeves revolves around those who treat the Enlightenment worldview as self-evident and obvious, and who gloss over its political and revolutionary nature (the Enlightenment didn't inspire three revolutions for nothing). When I heard some of the basic contours of your argument, I assumed that you had a similar naive take on Enlightenment and therefore didn't think your book worth reading. This is a pet peeve because I feel that the political edge of the Enlightenment has been dulled through its normalization (we, or I, hear a lot of administrative types talk vacuously about critical thinking and whatnot, without seeming to reflect on it very much), and I believe that it's necessary to re-awaken the radicality of the Enlightenment gesture. I apologize for mischaracterizing your position and look forward to reading your work in the future. My face is red. I'll be more cautious about opening my mouth about things I haven't yet read in the future.


I get that Bérubé’s reference to Kramer's "elite" and then excluding "elite" from his own definition indicates that a true liberal education excludes elite (just like the sentence does...oooh, do I get an A?)

But Jodi's point is not what an individual advocates - but what one's thoughts imply - what is hidden despite the advocacy.

And I think that Bérubé doesn't provide proper respect to the argument. No one (at least anyone who has been here a while) would seriously expect that Jodi meant in any way to suggest that Bérubé advocates an elite education so that liberal elites can govern the masses (or retire with those big ISA entitlements funded by the taxpayers - those same taxpayers easily drawn to fascism (but communism...not so much)). At least when she's not setting up straw men in her spare time.

Michael, engage with the argument, not the lack of precision in a blog post quote - or should she write tongue-in-cheek so that any criticism can be laughed off as that funny, eloquent Lacanian professor?

So, does Jodi's basic claim have merit? Is liberalism about formations of power / knowledge or does it claim a superior (moral?) stance of rationality to establish its authority?

I guess I may have to go buy Bérubé's book myself.


Thanks, PE Bird. I would say that liberals is about power/knowledge and that it justifies itself morally through its claim to reason. This is how I understand Habermasian discourse ethics. The difference that matters is whether the claim to rationality should be understood in a Foucauldian sense, that is, as inextricable from power. I also think that it needs to be understood in a Lacanian/Zizekian sense, but that wasn't my point here.

And, Michael, my point is that liberalism/liberal arts/critical reason is positioned is elite in your argument because of the way that it is produced through the exclusion of a extremes and through the connection between the specific habits of mind (critical exchange of reason as taught in universities) and a political formation (liberal democracy).

So, I don't think that your book is meant as a kind of letter to a prince (say, Kerry or Edwards) on how elites can come to power. Rather, I am arguing that the liberalism you advocate and the way you advocate it is a formation of power/knowledge that claims moral and political authority for specific habits of mind/practices of critical reason. And, I am claiming that distinguishing these habits relies on a set of exclusions difficult to justify in terms of the notion of critical reason in use and, ultimately, a notion of love that also disrupts the presumptions of critical reason.

Uncle Meat

The Rawlsian aspects of Berube's writing are not undeserving of respect. Indeed, the lack of the sort of Rawlsian ethical groundwork (and dare we say Hobbesian) is a problem with all political camps, from rightist/libertarian to lib. to marxist. But I don't think Berube is that Rawlsian. He's more a traditional populist dem. upholding the faith in the populace (and the popular vote, presumably). And that innate , somewhat Rousseauian trust in the people (either proles or booj-wah) obviously has shortcomings. Are people voting for the poltical Good or to further their own interests? Can those co-exist? Rawls thinks not. Perhaps each election should somehow require voters to adorn themselves with the "veil of ignorance"; though agency of course an issue as well. Really with the right code and application--a sort of Rawls 'Bot-- most political and economic issues could be solved, at least for sane, non-theocratic citizens.

Uncle Meat

Of course the marxist--orthodox or Zizekian--simply says those sort of "liberal" reforms are not working, the vote is a token gesture, as is bourgeois ethics: and yet what does he have to point to as an alternative? Stalin? Mao? The character of "liberalism" chitchat is beside the point: either one implements some sort of Hobbesian/Rawlsian covenants/contracts, or one rejects them. The rejection could of course be via communism, fascism, or John Dillingerism for that matter. There's nearly as much liberal moralizing in Ms. Dean's post as in a typical Berube rant.

Jonathan  Mayhew

"Does this mean that the masses, the non-elites, are a mass of extremes, of appetites and aversions easily thrown by the rhetorics of right and left, easily drawn to fascism or communism? And does it mean that the liberal elite are the proper steerers or governors of the mass, the ones capable of avoiding extremes, perhaps because of their love for critical reason? Or, are they just an elite trying for political control from a particular power base in the educational ideological state apparatus?"

"No one (at least anyone who has been here a while) would seriously expect that Jodi meant in any way to suggest that Bérubé advocates an elite education so that liberal elites can govern the masses."

Maybe I haven't been here for long enough because this is exactly what that passage suggests to me, albeit through a series of rhetorical questions.

Luther Blissett

Jodi, if there isn't a political ideology that isn't about Power/Knowledge, then what's the point of pointing it out?

I agree with you that every argument is at some level about power. But given that, shouldn't we begin to evaluate which formations of power/knowledge are better than others? So that a system of power/knowledge in which folks democratically debate over and vote in issue decisions might be better than Zizek's nostalgic vision of Stalinism? Or a neo-Platonic vision of the polis in which an enlightened intellectual elite management team decides policy for the populace?

More interesting is your brief discussion of how everyone jockies for the middle-of-the-road position these days. But you're not pointing out much more than the age-old fact that people argue as much from ethos and pathos as from logos. "The golden mean" is such an ingrained ideal in Western society that only who claims it immediately appeals to his or her audience's sense of character and heart.

But beyond such rhetorical positioning on Berube's part, isn't his larger point that the extreme left and right (say, Ward Churchill and David Horowitz) both refuse to adhere to basic rules of evidence, logic, and rational argument? And while you make a condescending connection between Berube's privilege of reason over the supposedly emotive way of knowing of beasts and women and darker others, you fail to mention that this was a WESTERN misconception. In all my anthropological readings, I've never found a culture in which good reasons weren't valued in discussions and debates.


Hi Luther, thanks for your remarks.

To my mind, it's worth pointing out power/knowledge or ideological formations to those who think that they are outside or beyond them or that they have a claim to reason that transcends them.

And, so, yes, I agree that the next step is considering which formations are preferable and why. And, then we argue about these preferences--deliberative democracy, rule by a central government, or some kind of expert or technocratic governance. And, we recognize that disagreements on these matters will not mean that some participants (those we think are wrong) are irrational (although they could be).

And, we will also have to recognize that the criteria we use in our argument will impact the way we can have it, the terms that we use to assess preferences. So, deliberative democrats are likely to highlight inclusivity; the technocrats might highlight something like efficiency or order; the advocate of central government might advocate elimination of poverty and provision of social welfare.

And, I would expect that even if we were to agree on criteria--say, freedom--we might disagree on what this means.

But, perhaps then the proper criteria are actually procedures or a decision rule: that which is best is that to which all would agree. At this point, we would have a problem, for some would say that they don't care if others disagree with them (perhaps they have an insight into divine truth); or, some might say that an emphasis on agreement erases difference; or some might say that an emphasis on the procedural rules privileges democracy in advance, privileges, that is, a contingent historical political formation. And so on and so forth.

On good reasons--the issues, it seems to me, are what counts as a good reason and what are the conditions under which a reason is expected or demanded. So, the religious right will say that the claim that marriage is naturally between a man and a woman is a rational one. I would say that this view is nonsense--that its basic premise of marriage as a natural arrangement is false (and falsifiable). (The really smart faction of the right, of course, does not make the argument from nature, but from convention.)

So, to me, to claim that the extremes of left and right refuse to adhere to basic rules of evidence, logic, and rational argumentation is wrong on at least two counts. (I do think that one can make specific demonstrations of lies, falsififcations, contradictictions, unjustified leaps--but these have nothing to do with where one is on the political spectrum. These particular demonstrations are, to my mind, more effective than blanket denunciations of irrationality, illogic, etc.)

1. it presumes a shared notion of rules of evidence, logic, and rational argumentation; it seems to me more accurate to say that these rules etc are part of what is at stake in the argument (in my book on aliens I argue that the contemporary problem is larger than liberalism can acknowledge because it is rooted in competing conceptions of the Real, not of the good).

2. Berube links these mistakes to the fact of being on the extreme; so, for him, an extreme view is necessarily irrational; it depends on a mistake or error--this is for me the biggest problem with Berube's characterization of liberalism and liberal arts, this presumption of the rationality of a middle path and necessary irrationality of the extremes of left and right.

Grant Goodman

I thought that this Stanley Fish review of Wendy Brown's "Regulating Aversion" was an interesting parallel to this discussion.


Brown's arguments about tolerence in a liberal regime seem to parallel Jodi's, and (somewhat surprisingly to me) Fish's response seems to parallel that of Luther Blissett and John Holbo.

Fish writes: "Brown's account of liberal tolerance tells us how it works not only in this instance, but whenever and wherever it is deployed; but it doesn't tell us whether liberal tolerance is a good thing, or whether there is something better."


If liberal democracy can produce a situation where the government has the right, by law, to detain, torture, and murder legal aliens (or in some cases even citizens), doesn't this at least raise the possibility that democracy is ethically vacuous? And if that is the case, are we left with the old argument that it is democracy is a terrible form of government, but it is better than all the alternatives? This seems rather disatisfying.


"If liberal democracy can produce a situation where the government has the right, by law, to detain, torture, and murder legal aliens (or in some cases even citizens), doesn't this at least raise the possibility that democracy is ethically vacuous?"

A liberal is likely to respond that legal torture, etc, has been arrived at by non-democratic means, or via a democracy in poor health, as per the diagnosis of US democracy by many liberals.

Hence, if one is to critique liberal democracy in this way, he or she must show that such exceptional state violence/power is constitutive rather than purely or merely aberrant (Schmitt/Agamben, no?).

"are we left with the old argument that [...] democracy is a terrible form of government, but it is better than all the alternatives?"

Yes. Hence, the either/or of Uncle Meat's 'it's liberalism or the Gulag.' Or, you know, somewhere in the middle like Guantanamo or maybe Palestine.

Uncle Meat

Isn't the disjunction more like this: a civil, democratic society, even socialist or pastoral, based on agreed-upon-- and enforceable, perhaps-- covenants (a social contract, more or less), OR various non-democratic alternatives, including but not limited to communism, fascism, theocracy, criminal anarchy, etc.--a state of nature, but there would seem to be degrees thereof.

(Yet a technocratic elite could certainly be more qualified to make decisions about some things--say economics, or enviro. policy-- than would a group of laypeople).

(Like so many of the continentalist/marxists vs. liberal/analytical spats, this one seems related to a few rather boring ethical chestnuts, and really it's quite amazing how silly and bor-ring a John Holbore can be when he tries to defend some grand theory --in this case "liberalism," which he could barely define, much less provide convincing arguments for. His method of discussion is about like some frat-boy business major who wants to test you on Utilitarianism 101 at the weekly kegger. And yet what sort of "analytical" philosopher defends the Utilitarians?--it seems not to have occured to the clown that there there are no cogent arguments for values based on ye olde "hedonistic calculus." The semi-bright undergraduate soon understands the numerous obvious flaws with utilitarianism (if killing 10 people means the good-pleasure of 1 million is increased, isn't that acceptable? etc.) but in Holboorland, one has to descend to the kegger cliffsnotes discussion of ethics over and over. Of course he's far too narcissistic and arrogant to realize his own gross inconsistencies and sophistries, and even the "marxists" of blogland don't have the spine to denounce his azz. Pretty f-n sad when Ms Dean [whom Uncle Meat disagrees with on most things) seems to be the only one willing to take on the Lit. buffoons--)


The disjunction between the ideal civic society vs. the the bestiality of collectivist alternatives, is only a surface

The words "agreed-upon" and "social contract" and "enforceable" are examples of what Jodi is arguing - that liberalism must posit itself to arrive at itself.

Another way to look at it is that liberalism is an effect of capital – yet liberalism narcissistically takes credit for becoming into existence - it ignores, no, it even denouces the eggs broken to makes its own omelette.

This is why liberals hate leftists so much - leftists shove it in our faces to look at - this is why you exist, this is the basis of your privilege, your freedom, you/we are as much a cause as a symptom.

So, we get these "wise" criticisms from the progressive liberals - the far left is "its own worst enemy", you lose popular support when you say "we are all Hamas", that Zizek "is nostalgic for Stalinism". What utter bullshit, but people seriously think this is criticism. As long as the privileged positions aren't threatened (or, god forbid, that guilt be induced), as long as we can keep an ironic distance, that hard headed pragmatic, realistic perspective, well then we demonstrate our superior rational position upon which we claim power to be peacefully handed over. As if power is ever given away. Please.

Tim O'Neill

Thank you for this essay. It expresses concisely many of the misgivings I've had with the guardians of soi-disant liberalism.

I'd curious to know what you'd make of this criticism of Brub et al: like their predecessors in the historical Enlightenment, the defenders of liberalism's unspoken criteria for what constitutes "rational dialogue" is actually the identity of the speaker. Originally, that identity was the gender or ethnicity of the speaker; now it depends on ideological premises, which, as I believe your example of the fundamentalist student shows, may be a source of discussion, but not subject to verification or falsification. Thus there are two problems with what I'll call exclusionary liberalism: it fails to live up to its own claims of reason when evaluating positions with premises it does not share, and it cannot ground its claim that its version of "reason" is superior to competing versions (it's the dilemma of the positivist's verification criterion all over again!)

The irony of this to me is that if one retreats to a naive scientism, i.e., a "thumbs-up/thumbs-down" judgment on predictive and explanatory power, exclusionary liberalism has a pretty poor track record compared to, say, Chomsky's alledged radicalism (which, as far as I can tell, is the reason Brub wants to lay claim to but applied with greater imparitiality and stringency) and historical materialism (and no Red baiting please--my wrists still ache from the last time I had to explain in detail that not only can't you draw a straight line from _Capital, V1_ to the gulag, you can't even draw a straight line from _Capital_ to Lenin) Definitions may depend on exclusions, but practice does not: doesn't the history of the Republicans from Goldwater to Reagan demonstrate that? As long as exclusionary liberalism remains more exclusionary than liberal, it will be contradictory, and in the long run, irrelevant.

Thanks again for this essay, and the chance to add to the discussion.


Thanks for your comment, Tim. I think your point about the identity of the speaker is excellent and insightful.

Alley oop

The real Other, the real enemy, the real Booj-wah are academics as a whole, even the ones who pretend to be great radical and working class heroes. Which is to say Dean vs. Berube, or even marx vs. liberals are not real disjunctions......and even the REAL f-n socialist might recall what the chinese did with the intelligentsia......a few docs might be par-tay members.....but it's debatable whether belle-lettrists and clerics of all types---including most philosophers----might make it through the liquidation process. I wager Marx and even Bukarin agreed

Tim O'Kenneallican

There may be a historical issue at stake in the Berube and the liberal monkees vs Jody and the commie-pinkos match. We tend to detest Foucault's writings and most marxist historian types--tho' will grant both Marx and Engels were no slouches in terms of gathering historical data to support their work, tho' that objectivity is not so obvious in Capital. (Zizek's usual obscure attacks on historicism are one of the real problems [along with too much f-n Lacan] of the Parallax View, and one doesn't have to be some doctrinaire marxist to disapprove of Z's dismissals of hist. materialism .). Which is to say the historical record forms the basis--and provides the force-- of a marxist-materialist critique of philosophy or aesthetics or capitalism; of course, that record now includes the record of marxist failure vis a vis Stalin and Mao, etc.--a point which Ms Dean seems to ignore or overlook. Postmodernism, including Zizekeanism, unfortunately seems to ameliorate the effect of economic and historical materialist critiques (even hist. materialism from a non-marxist perspective), and thus loses ground to the Eleanor Roosevelt school of Berube (ie Pelosism).

Rob Rushing

A very interesting post and discussion. A couple of points: I second Mayhew's point--I also read Jodi in precisely the way PeBird suggests "no one" could. That may not be what she meant, of course, but that's certainly what it sounded like.

Nonetheless, I agree with PeBird's larger point, that, while Berube did a brilliant job (as always) at pointing out failures in close reading, especially where his own text is concerned, I'm not sure he responded to the substance of the post: that procedural liberalism founds itself through a series of exclusions that forbid various people to speak in various ways, etc., and isn't this all another example of pouvoir-savoir?

At the end of the day, I think the answer is that yes, it does found itself through exclusions, but they are not the same as the excusions of fundamentalism. Procedural liberalism, as I understand it, is perfectly willing to entertain lots of other viewpoints, even larger questions of how we judge which viewpoints to entertain, how to make decisions--it is even willing to say: "well, that other way is a better way of doing things--let's do it like that from now on." It doesn't reject fundamentalism simply because it's extreme (and I agree that any definition of reason as simply "moderate" will be ultimately circular--but does Berube really do this?), but because it is intolerant, inflexible, and makes terrible decisions about subjects ranging from drawing election district lines to foreign policy (part of the Enlightenment was, of course, saying "well, I think we've had enough of that for a while!"). Procedural liberalism is dedicated to having a procedure for evaluating the merit of ideas, policies, including the procedures themselves--it has, in short, a meta-language (it does not allow all things to be said in that meta-language, of course, but many). Fundamentalism is truly fundamental--it has no metalanguage. No modifications or changes are to be made, ever--there are no tools for talking about them, only tools for preventing them from being talked about. It is (and I use the term advisedly) idiotic, not only in the quotidian sense of stupid, but in precisely the Zizekian sense of mechanical, driven, caught in a loop.

Does all this reason and proceduralism create or at least anticipate, à la Foucault, a particular kind of subject? Of course. And the question becomes, as Blissett points out, "shouldn't we begin to evaluate which formations of power/knowledge are better than others?" We should. I propose that to perform that evaluation, however, we shall need two things: (1) a procedure, and (2) reason.

Louis Proyect

For all of Michael Berube's attacks on the left, there is actually very little engagement with the substance. It mostly consists of smear jobs against people like Edward Herman, not much more elevated than what you might hear on cable TV. Berube has written tens of thousands of words on Yugoslavia, but I have never seen a single reference to a scholarly text (Miranda Vickers, Misha Glenny, Laura Silber, etc.) It really puzzles me how such a lightweight can interject himself into this debate when he has not done his homework.

Robert Corbett

"So, liberal thought is in between bestiality (venomous), insanity and drug addiction (hallucinatory), on the one side, and, on the other, stupidity and immorality."

This to me is what is symptomatic goes wrong with a lot of theoretical discussion: an over reliance on on (partial) close reading in place of argument. And a strange way to treat a polemical point. The images teased out certainly are there, but what of it? (Not to mention, "bestiality" is not the first term that comes to mind from venomous.) When one writes polemic, you disparage; you don't write neutral, diplomatic prose. And the gesture of teasing these images out is on the order of saying "there you go again." So what we have here is not so much a claim, as a rhetorical tuning up, a "float like a butterfly" moment.

But the following point--upon which your point about liberalism and its hiding of "power relations--that Berube's liberalism is "exclusionary" doesn't follow from this unpacking of his "centering" discourse. As you note, this strategy is prevalent in all sorts of writers. Well, the same can be said for positioning oneself on the extreme. Which I think is the place that this response is tending. First and foremost, "centers" and "margins" are rhetorical. (I believe this was Derrida's point at the beginning of his career.) There is no circle or square to line up political rhetorics except in our collective hallucination of society. That "radical" comes from "root" further muddies the water.

Which leads to this point, at least for me. Far from determining either the required identity papers or party card required for someone to speak, Berube is laying out an account of how to be pluralistic in the classroom and out. And documenting how pluralism, yes, is incapable of engaging with certain rhetorics. I think the usefulness of "What's Liberal" is that it goes some distance in showing how we can, if not get along, allow many voices to be heard. It is hard for me to imagine that socialist or, for that, "mulitculturalist" rhetorics would be different.

Now, the blindspot of the book, and one that I share, is, well, aren't most liberal arts colleges actually "liberal arts & sciences" colleges? What about science? This isn't a task the book sets for itself, which is to make a clear and forthright case for teaching in the humanities. But it is a question that looms, especially since the ignorance abroad in the land about science is more scandalous and more dangerous to our future than resolving or winning the culture wars.


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