The non-argument argument that links Derrida et al. to Trump

Since the election of Trump, various explanations have been given: Clinton didn’t spend enough time in Michigan or Wisconsin; Trump voters did a Brexit and didn’t think he would actually win; etc. But the most absurd, one that pops up at least once a week, it seems, is the non-argument argument that “postmodernism” (by people who don’t know what it means) led to Trump, since his post-fact universe is just like the supposed post-fact universe given by very different thinkers lumped under that term: Deleuze, Derrida, Foucault, etc. First was Daniel Dennett, who while whining he had to think about politics at all (the poor guy!) said in an interview with the Guardian:

I think what the postmodernists did was truly evil. They are responsible for the intellectual fad that made it respectable to be cynical about truth and facts. You’d have people going around saying: “Well, you’re part of that crowd who still believe in facts.”

No citation is given, because none would be found. Lyotard, the one who wrote The Postmodern Condition, was deeply interested in how we think ethics after the death of absolutes. Foucault’s late career would be wrongly dubbed “ethical,” or only that, but he was interested precisely in genealogies of power and how to act otherwise on the margins of those forms of power, a veritable thinking of the care of the self. And Derrida’s whole later corpus focused on forgiveness, alterity, critiquing sovereign decisionism, and all manner of thinking that testified to what he called the “undeniable” finitude of our being. Far from erasing “facts,” these are thinkers who built an entire archive testifying to multiple “undeniable facts,” a phrase found all over Derrida, to rethink, revalue, and rewrite a tradition that determines all manner of our modes of thinking.

Make an argument. We can then have one, but just sputtering is not an argument. This weekend’s example was in the Jacobin, and, alas, given the good work the authors normally do, just repeats tendential sputtering in the wind: we need to ignore all manner of critique from Adorno to post-colonial critique, we need to ignore that Foucault and Derrida in fact called for something like an extra-Enlightenment, a hyper critique in works dedicated to Kant, to think another Enlightenment to come.

The ostensible target of the article is Jason Reza Jorjani, the alt-right PhD graduate from Stony Brook, and to show through a series of moves that can only be called hermeneutic inversion that Jorjani’s racist clap-trap is somehow linked to his alma mater, Stony Brook. (The absurdity is firstly that Stony Brook is not the leading Continental program it once was, as a look at its current faculty would show.) But let’s leave that aside: we get a reading of Spinoza as a hyper-rationalist when any reader of the Theological-Political Treatise would see that the rationalism of the ethics cannot be divorced from an avowed historicist claim about how cultural values are crystallizations of formations of power. To only claim Spinoza as a rationalist is not to read him at all. And then this claim–where I’m forced to defend Heidegger even as he was a right-wing thinker:

From Heidegger, Jorjani takes the idea that one’s historical culture matters more than objective reality. As opposed to the Enlightenment belief that time and space are uniform and measurable in some objective way, Heidegger claims that each group of people subjectively wills and shapes its own world and destiny. No common universe belongs to all; there is only a pluriverse of conflicting worldviews and forces. As Jorjani paraphrases Heidegger, each historical community struggles “to become more essentially what it is, or to perish in enslavement to another people and its world.”

Well that’s quite a paraphrase that phrases it wrong, and it ignores that Heidegger critiqued from beginning to end anything thinking of supposed “world-views” dominant in Germany. The Black Notebooks and his anti-semitism are an academic void in which I don’t wish to leap, but where is that book of Heidegger on “will” or “subjectively” or “shaping its own world and destiny.” He had critiqued all of that while still being, obviously, an arrogant wanna-be philosopher king in the mid-thirties. An awful man, but let’s at least not make up arguments he didn’t make.

Evidence is claimed that the alt-right “derives from the counter-Enlightenment.” I wish they were that well read. I also wish that Spinoza was this Spinoza (how many feminists have had at it about this? Why not think that there is perhaps an intrinsic link between his vitalism and the blank page? Or Kant on colonialism? To admit that, though, means thinking a universalism that always is anything but):

Spinoza’s universalism entailed that governments exercise tolerance toward minority communities and grant them political emancipation as citizens without requiring them to shed their particular religious and cultural identities. It also held that members of those communities should be able to freely assimilate, should they desire, into the broader European culture (as Spinoza himself did following his excommunication). Meanwhile, his rationalism empowered minorities to become critics of the dominant culture now open to them.

And thus we have it: an article attacking postmodernism as the front for Trumpist alt-rightism is in the end, a blinkered reading of Spinoza, ignores the Enlightenment it claims (along with the colonialism to a man it supported), says not a word in passing about the writers it diminishes, and thus remains as fact-free as its supposed enemy. Whining that we should believe in the Enlightenment is not an argument; it is a repeat of the Dostoyevsky claim that without God, everything is permitted. That’s not a proof for a God, and this is not a proof for that God trotted out as the Enlightenment.




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