June 9, 2006

Better Latte than Never

[I'll warn you: this is long and probably not summer vacation material]

Cleaning out my room for the trip home (I've stayed through interim), I picked up a copy of the Green Key issue of the Review that I had been saving in order to read this lovely little poison pen letter to French intellectuals by Emily Ghods-Esfahani. Reviewing a recent publication by a Dartmouth prof (Lawrence Kritzman), The Columbia History of Twentieth-Century French Thought, Miss Ghods-Esfahani mocks the famous Death of the Author. Miss Ghods-Esfahani in fact proves Monsieur Barthes's point—in place of a real author, we find someone who is merely adept at reading Wikipedia. For it is quite clear that she has little understanding of anything but the most rudimentarily second-hand bowdlerizations of 20th century French and continental thought.

She starts out ridiculously—"Modernism itself was a philosophical tradition that placed reason above all, a system rooted in French philosophy, from Descartes’ cogito ergo sum, to the Enlightenment philosophes’ Rights of Man." Didn't even bother to check Wikipedia, I guess. Modernism is an aesthetic movement; I know of no "Modernist" philosophical tradition—certainly some "modern" philosophers, but no Modernists. Secondly, the aesthetic movement almost completely uncoupled itself from Cartesian views of humanity and rationality in its glorification of, well, The Modern—machines, progress, the abstract. The machine is not rational—watch Metropolis or Modern Times—it is beyond rationality as much as it is beyond humanity.

Miss Ghods-Esfahani is at least well-informed enough to parrot the same attack that has been used on Derrida and his fellow travellers—she finds in deconstruction a prime example of the Liar's Paradox—the assertion that it is true that there is no truth. What Miss Ghods-Esfahani—and so many like her—does not understand is that deconstruction is not meant to be a quest for something in the way that Kant's project was, or even Heidegger's. Deconstruction is not a project or a pursuit; it is a position, a possibility, a space inside the metaphysical fortress we have been building since Socrates's death.

Deconstruction is entirely beyond the Liar's Paradox because it is not asserting the absence or unreality of truth—though it may do so tactically—rather, it makes no assertions at all. As with skepticism more generally, it only asks questions. {That distinction, for what it's worth, I take from Paul Tillich, hardly the kind of wide-eyed radical Miss Ghods-Esfahani clearly detests.} There are certainly limits to the skeptic's position, but those limits are not identical to the limits or constraints placed upon a truth-generative project like induction or deduction. Skepticism is not truth-producing. It is truth-reducing. The Liar's Paradox is inapplicable, and so is Miss Ghods-Esfahani's critique.

The point of this all is that (as you should know by now if you read LGB with any frequency), I find dismissals of poststructuralist/postmodernist philosophy enormously irritating. The common arguments—that it is faddish and sterile, purposefully obscure and therefore valueless—have been hurled at numerous philosophers whom we now recognize as the pillars of Western philosophical tradition—Socrates foremost, but also Hume, Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer, William James, and, yes, Nietzsche.

I find Miss Ghods-Esfahani's review irritating because she assumes that someone with very little (or no) training or study can dismantle (I won't use the word 'deconstruct') an entire century of thought using little more than a sneer and the accusation of political radicalness and the intimation that the latte set can't be trusted with either the creation or the holding of ideas.

Seriously though, if I tried to smirk my way through a holistic critique of quantum mechanics or phonology or labor economics, I would be laughed at, or should be. Why can so many people take such uninformed potshots at an entire block of philosophy and be cheered on as if they were doing us all a service? Now, I believe we should certainly not cheer on the professors and academics who praise and utilize poststructuralist or postmodern language and axioms without knowing very much at all about them either, but ignorance on their side does not mean we should cultivate ignorance going the other way and praise it to boot. I find that anti-intellectual at best, willfully and maliciously misguiding at worst.


  1. Anonymous3:28 AM

    Kierkegaard is also an interesting philosopher!

  2. Anonymous2:05 PM

    That article isn't particularly worth the time you just took to talk about it. The funny thing, though, is that Ghods isn't a particularly knowledgeable conservative, as she doesn't do a good job of trotting out the same criticism that conservative media make every year about the MLA or other academic productions. And therein lies hope that she can change!

    I'd say her main problem is that she
    takes a bad faith attitude toward this body of knowledge. When I was first reading some of these admittedly difficult works of French thought, I was a lot more conservative than I am now, but I still held those texts up with some respect and some good faith that these works do contain a logic and participate in a long tradition of thought.

    It's a bit sad that most conservatives don't have respect for this immense collection of knowledge, and that they don't even understand what they're criticizing or what intellectual traditions these thinkers belong to.

    Jon '03