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  a critique
 (of the fetishism of critique)


Fair enough, we “should” say - that is, by the unwritten laws the academic Humanities currently genuflects towards. But...hold on a minute. Therefore, we (also) have to - undoubtedly - also give equal credence to any reply to same...which would, therefore, be a critique of a critique of a critique. And...assuming - justly - that the humble author necessarily retains his right of reply...we, quite honestly, could (equally) be assumed to be disappearing up our own collective arsehole...w/nary a whiff of any possible knowledge to break the vicious circle...

Reason being, “we” have (gradually) been over-privileging critique in the Humanities, over most of the last century, to the point where “we” have now virtually forgotten what it means to make a positive contribution to knowledge...and, to be blunt, are almost incapable of recognising one, even if it doesn’t clearly undermine any of “our” particular prejudices.

Let me be most specific. Oh...and, I’ll drop most of the arch scare quotes from now on - the point being made - as long as readers will accept that I entirely dissent from the positions I am now going to say “we” Humanities scholars unthinkingly adhere to.

Alright...on w/the show: A genuinely impressive example of exactly what I am getting at here, is the nigh-on total failure of the Humanities to integrate the work of serious scholars on the divisions between oral/literate/printing cultures...despite the (undoubted) fact that this area has attracted several serious historians (as well as anthropologists) over the last half century - and that they have offered us impressively detailed scholarship which - by any sensible standard - proves that such transitions clearly have major effects. This doesn’t - at all - violate tabula rasa assumptions, whilst it also clearly foregrounds language in a way which ought to appeal to our current biases...

But...are we attempting to teach our students this? Are we - in any way - willing to accord this work the status (however qualified) of positive knowledge...something foundational, which would (thus) give our students something firm upon which to anchor, to some degree, the relativism we damn-well insist upon?

No...which is merely one of the (many) good reasons why I damn-well abandoned said ship of fools...and, if you think this judgement is overly harsh, then think it through again...because, any so-called critique (no matter how well-argued) w/out some firm basis to stand on - rather than mere preferences - is nothing but a waste of time...

Now...those familiar w/this site might well - now - expect me to blame this on post-Saussurean cultural theory. Trouble is, as Wayne C. Booth has persuasively argued (well before the takeover of same in the English-speaking world), the tendency was clearly endemic well before this...and, in fact, it could easily be argued that, therefore, the world of the Humanities was an over-ripe fruit, merely awaiting some all-embracing form of critique...which Saussure’s decadent heirs then simply plucked.

My favourite “joke” re the Booth argument - which, by the way, I almost entirely buy - is that the thinkers who opposed this slide, who insisted upon some positive basis for their work, he then (in 1971) called “postmodernists”!

Little did he know, eh?

The book that eventuated from said lectures - in 1974 - was called Modern Dogma and the Rhetoric of Assent (University of Chicago Press)...and, I warmly recommend it to anyone who (at all) likes this particular diatribe....because Booth says almost exactly what I hope I would have said, prior to the hardening of the “critical” arteries that has accompanied the post-Saussurean orthodoxy of the subsequent thirty years & more... Moreover, he is a genuinely learned scholar - who knows about lots of things I don’t - and, hence, is certainly well worth reading at length on this important (and badly neglected) topic...

But...I’m not here (now) to retail wisdom from an age where a sensible scholar could (still) see influential theoretical dissent & hope that it would triumph... No, I’m here - right now - to damn the stifling of same, and to erect a counter-challenge that the intellectual eunuchs who’ve bought into said orthodoxy cannot honestly reply to.

But, before I do...I’m (entirely) sure some readers are already warming themselves - right now - w/the thought that, when I say “positive”, I’m in some way (or another) buying into “positivism”...an entirely bankrupt approach to the theory of knowledge that praised science well beyond its means, and that has (since) served mainly as something to accuse your enemies of...

To the contrary...all (and, I mean all) that I mean by “positive” is something we can sensibly assert as being “true” - given, of course, that we are the (entirely fallible) products of evolution, rather than truth-finding mechanisms, or the children of God. Basically, therefore, all  I mean by “positive” is something that we can justifiably see as the opposite of “negative”...ie: critique, as such... And, I insist that “positive” arguments - albeit not positive prejudices (assumed rather than actively proposed and argued-for) - are now, in essence, verboten in the mainstream of the academic Humanities...and, that this is both ridiculous, and a very bad thing...

One last qualification, before I turn to the hunt... Now, I’m well-aware that many reputable scholars - especially historians - are not part of the “mainstream” I  just attacked. In fact, said scholars make up much of my reading diet, and I would certainly feel impoverished if deprived of their work. But, I also think the vast majority of same would agree w/my characterization of "Theory" - which still dominates the Humanities as a whole, despite its overwhelmingly repetitive/boring rhetoric - and, so, I have little doubt that they will forgive me for my over-inclusive condemnations. Because, these, my friends, are real scholars...and, so, they actually value the search for positive knowledge...

Alright...time to name names. Just, exactly, what are the (positive) contributions of the current idols of the Humanities? Derrida said everything was language/text...which, in effect - once you’d put cross-reference into play - said that everything was, really, the same thing. Putting it bluntly, this is just a linguistic take on (the ancient Greek philosopher) Parmenides...or Heraclitus, if you wanna insist upon the flux. But this sorta shit is old...and, what’s more, it’s certainly never helped us understand either ourselves, or the world we live in.

And, what’s more, we’ve had about two and a half thousand years to learn that lesson.

Foucault, in essence, seconded Derrida...only to argue (as Nietzsche insisted) that knowledge is power. All I can say is, he’s definitely on a losing streak as far as my life’s concerned. But...to return to non-anecdotal evidence, Foucault’s main problem is that Nietzsche certainly didn’t divorce language from the world...which meant that, by his estimation, knowledge could (certainly) be something more than power relations. However...once you buy the langue/parole divide - and attempt to build anything on langue as a system - you end up chasing your own tail...

And, so...language=knowledge=power=knowledge=language...and, quite simply, you can’t (justifiably, by your own assumptions) get out of the trap. Equivalence takes over, and - as many disillusioned activists who’ve entertained Foucauldian ideas have noted - all power is (in this model) equally illegitimate...even countervailing power which may be exercised by the oppressed.

Read Foucault’s interviews - in particular those where he blathers on in support of the Khmer Rouge - in parallel w/his “serious” writings, and it rapidly becomes clear that he is, in fact, a deeply frivolous “thinker”, mainly concerned w/catering to an intellectual coterie, and has, in fact, no useful understanding of power at all...merely a clever line of chat which he abandons whenever there’s a “radical” pose to be struck...

The last of the (unholy) trinity is Lacan...and, unlike the others, it’s actually possible that there might just be some positive claims in his work - albeit I couldn’t find any I could translate into sensible English. After all, he’s supposed to be the French Freud...and Freud was nothing if not a system-builder. But...what I wanna know is what his vaunted “mirror stage” means to desert dwellers who might never see a clearly reflective body of water in their whole lives, let alone a mirror... Never seen any coherent answer to this - or been offered one by self-professed “Lacanians” when challenged on exactly this point - on the other hand, mind you, I’ve also never read anything even vaguely coherent by Lacan himself...

So, given his intellectual empire-building, and (apparently) insatiable desire for female disciples, I have to come to conclusion that the man was probably, quite simply, a con artist w/(again) a highly culturally-appropriate line...

And...as to the main current heir to said losers - Deleuze - well, as someone who has suffered from a very real mental illness myself, I’m totally disgusted w/any so-called “intellectual” who could argue - at length - that there was no such thing as mental illness. why the brain - our most complex organ, by far - should be (apparently) exempt from the ills of the flesh is completely beyond me...unless (as is usual in such circles) critique has so totally triumphed that the real world simply can’t get a look in...

As for the claims - by Manuel de Landa & such - that his other arguments hold water...well, all such I’ve encountered strongly suggest that he’s capable of translating sensible scientific perspectives into poststructuralist jargon. And, this we’re supposed to applaud?

Fuck that.

Back to the real world. What this lightning survey was meant to suggest - apart, that is, from my spleen - is that there’s basically NO positive content in postmodern theory...making it a perfect match for the cultural trend Booth identified as early as 1971 - well before its triumph in the Anglophone world. There’s a curious match here - at least, to my mind - w/the most reductive versions of sociobiology...in that both specialize in what we might term “nothing buttery” Human behaviour is “nothing but” biology/there is “nothing outside the text”...I’m sure you can see the similarity.

Still...push comes to shove, I’d rather argue w/an idiot sociobiologist than a postmodernist - since, at least the former has some idea of what evidence might mean re knowledge...whereas the latter has, almost by definition, managed to fetishize critique to the extent that he/she is now basically impervious to any general truth claims whatsoever...unless they are appropriately negative & also happen to avoid a myriad of unsupported prejudices. Oh..and the right kind of jargon is also essential, of course.

I well remember the time I was first starkly confronted w/this fact. It was when someone I had (previously) liked insisted that there was no such thing as truth...and that we - always - had to ask “true for whom”? And, that it, quite simply, didn’t matter how much I tried to bring it down to consensual reality - you know, “you & I are now sitting in this room, and that is true...full stop” - she resolutely insisted that I was wrong...which was when my (already severe) distaste for this nonsense really became an active hatred - a position I’ve never been tempted to resile from.

Because...to be blunt, Meredith was now (clinically) insane - even if no-one was about to commit her - and, I’d insist, she would never have come to such a pass were it not for the hypertrophy of critique in the Humanities, its (complete) failure to - in any way whatsoever - attempt to construct what Booth calls a “rhetoric of assent”, and its deep love affair w/French intellectual jargon...which has helped make otherwise nonsensical positions seem deeply sophisticated.

A last note on the jargon. When I mock postmodernists for their “physics envy”, I’m virtually guaranteed a non-comprehending audience...despite the fact that this (satirical) term has been extremely common in informed science commentary for several decades...which, I’d suggest, would’ve horrified any reasonably well-informed humanist of earlier times. Because, it clearly shows just how out of touch we are w/the rest of the world of learning...

Contra those who have dismissed Snow’s “two cultures” bit, I’d like to suggest that he was entirely correct to lambast so-called “Humanists” who were proud of their ignorance of a major aspect of human experience...albeit I also think he was unbearably smug, and a very dull writer, to boot. Humanists have a synthesizing task at hand, which is very real & badly needed but, by indulging in their (extreme) version of what scientists call “physics envy” - producing a jargon-ridden hypertrophy of critique - they have entirely failed to even recognize said task, preferring instead the sterile “satisfactions” of a “philosophy” which no-one has ever, really, attempted to live by...

Recognising this fault, my friends, is our very first task.



John Henry Calvinist