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Wednesday, February 19, 2014


Today, as promised, I initiate what will be an occasional series of repeat posts, reprising essays I have previously posted of which I am inordinately fond.  My motivation is entirely narcissistic, and is not prompted by even a single request from my readers.  I conceive of myself as a writer, not as a blogger [though recent evidence might count against me in that regard], and once I have shaped my thoughts into a formal essay or book, I think of the product not as episodic and evanescent, but rather as a permanent contribution to The Great Conversation.  One of the paradoxes of The Cloud is that it both preserves every thought one has ever blogged or tweeted or texted and also, by that very fact, reduces everything one has written to the status of ephemera.  Think of this series of repeat posts as my futile effort to sweep back the tide.

Today, I re-post the first half of an essay I wrote, in despair, after a difficult meeting of a graduate seminar.  The second half will appear tomorrow.  It has never been formally published.

Macros and PC's:
                                 A Last-Ditch Attempt to Salvage Ideological Critique

[Editorial note:  this was written twenty years ago.  Now, of course, I use WORD]

I am one of those dinosaurs who still use Wordstar as a word processing program. In the Wordstar program there is a utility that permits a user to define a macro - that is to say, a series of characters associated with a single one or two stroke command. When I have finished writing a letter, for example, I simply press "Escape-C." On the screen appears "tab, tab, tab, Sincerely yours, comma, return, return, return, tab, tab, tab, Robert Paul Wolff." Another macro command prints out "tab, tab, tab, Professor of Afro-American Studies and Philosophy," and yet a third produces "tab, tab, tab, University of Massachusetts, Amherst."  This Macro utility is a great convenience to me. It permits me to produce a standardized bit of text without mistakes and without much thought. I have ten or twelve such macros stored somewhere in the Wordstar program.
I often think that George Orwell would have been quite delighted by the phenomenon of the macro, had he lived long enough to see it. In his great essay, "Politics and the English Language," written in 1946, Orwell, you will recall, talks about the corruption of political thought and language that is manifested in the mindless repetition of standardized phrases. He gives lots of examples, such as "a consideration which we should do well to bear in mind," and "bloodstained tyranny," and "achieve a radical transformation," and "leaves much to be desired." Had he written the essay only a few years later, he could have added "the free world," and "communist dictatorship," and perhaps "tax and spend liberal." He would have enjoyed the idea of politicians - or their speech writers - programming these and other phrases into their computers as macros, so that they could be produced by a single keystroke or two with no thought whatsoever. We Kant scholars have some rather specialist cant phrases for which macros might be appropriate - my favorite is "conditions of the possibility of experience in general."

These reflections were prompted, several semesters ago, by an incident in a seminar I was teaching on ideological critique. The participants were a group of extremely intelligent and widely read graduate students - all impeccably radical. Despite my heroic efforts to focus their attention on particular, concrete examples, such as the controversy that has developed among ethnographers of the northern Kalahari desert, the students persisted in speaking and writing in the most suffocatingly abstract and stereotypical fashion. Things finally blew up when one member of the class, making a class presentation, referred in passing to "racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia." The phrase rolled off his tongue as though the individual words were simply syllables of one great polysyllable - stuck together by some sort of syntactical glue. Everyone in the class was quite comfortable with the phrase. It seemed to me that they found it reassuring, rather in the way little children snuggle down in bed when they hear "Once upon a time." All except a rather abrasive German student who interrupted to protest that she, for one, had nothing against classism.  Indeed, she said, she regularly judged people according to their economic class, and thought it quite the right way to go about things.  The class came to a dead halt, and no one knew what to say. None of the students had ever heard anyone question the appropriateness of the phrase "racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia," used as a term of opprobrium. It was as though, in the middle of a class preparing little Catholic boys and girls for First Communion, a smart-mouthed trouble maker had piped up and said, "I can take the Father and the Son, but you can keep the Holy Ghost."

I pounced on the intervention - as the French have taught us to call it when a student says something in class - and did everything I could to make it the occasion for a searching examination of unacknowledged ideological presuppositions. That was, after all, the subject matter of the course. But it was a total flop. I simply couldn't get the students to see how mind-numbingly banal, how drained of all genuine thought, that phrase had become. I could not even get them to attune their ears to the ugliness of it as language.  Freud says somewhere, talking about the dynamics of psychoanalytic therapy, that if there is a single topic that it is not permitted to examine in an analysis, sooner or later the entire analysis comes to be about that topic. I have always found this a profound insight into what happens in the classroom as well.  A classroom in which it is socially or pedagogically unacceptable to question the appropriateness of the phrase "racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia" is a classroom in which neither real teaching nor real learning can take place. It is like a classroom at a Catholic university in which teachers are free to explore every conceivable subject - except the legitimacy of abortion. It is like the huge introduction to neo-classical economics at Harvard, presided over by former Chairman of the President's Council of Economic Advisors Martin Feldstein, who announced, when he returned from his duties in Washington, that the purpose of the course was to teach that the market works - not how it works, mind you, but that it works. 

There are a number of ways in which an orthodoxy can be imposed on a classroom.  The most obvious, and hence the least dangerous, is by administrative fiat. Considerably more dangerous, because harder to spot and to confront, is the quiet, tacit social pressure that enshrines certain ways of thinking as correct, stigmatizing deviations as morally reprehensible and unworthy of serious consideration. I have come to think of this as macro-thinking. By one of the ironies of modern discourse, this pre-programming of thought masquerades as ideological critique, when in fact it is the precise opposite. 

Ideological critique is the demonstration that a putatively value-neutral and objective description of the world actually conceals a thoroughly interested distortion of reality in the service of some powerful social or economic group. As Karl Mannheim shows us in Ideology and Utopia, the critique of a text as ideological is a hostile and aggressive attempt not merely to refute the thesis advanced by the text but also to discredit the author of the text as dishonest, disingenuous, covertly exploitative and manipulative. In the polite world of intellectual combat, where ink rather than blood is spilled, the accusation of ideology is the verbal equivalent of a shotgun blast. Deployed by the weak against the strong, it can be an equalizer, righting somewhat the force imbalance that characterizes unjust societies. 


Magpie said...

"Despite my heroic efforts to focus their attention on particular, concrete examples, such as the controversy that has developed among ethnographers of the northern Kalahari desert, the students persisted in speaking and writing in the most suffocatingly abstract and stereotypical fashion."

Although I cannot claim any experience as a teacher, I have noticed the same phenomenon.

An instance off the top of my head: among heterodox economists is becoming de rigueur to rant endlessly about societies being open systems; prediction, these people claim, is only possible in closed systems, like natural systems/experiments; therefore, economic/social science prediction is impossible; mainstream economists supposedly ignoring this, etc.

While I am very willing to admit there is a lot to the criticism (and the record of economists and other social scientists is less than stellar), I often wonder if these critics actually understand that, strictly speaking, a "closed system" is just an abstraction (originated in thermodynamics); there is no such a thing as a real-life closed system, whether in nature or in a lab, and yet prediction is still possible.

Is there a clever trick to deal with these, otherwise annoying, people? To use a formulaic phrase: is there a "silver bullet"? Because, truth be told, I am no hero.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I think there is no silver bullet. I thought my response in the seminar was pretty forceful, and I was, after all, THE PROFESSOR, but it simply did not get through. Nor, by the way, has Orwell's essay, even though everyone praises it and assigns it and says how wonderful it is.

I like the point about closed systems being theoretical constructs or abstractions. It is very hard to get people to see the reality in front of their faces.