When ideas mattered…

Graham writes at OOP:

As unfortunate as it may be to read of Christian vs. Christian persecutions over such issues as the exact status of the Son, and as much as I would hate to live under the threat of persecution for my philosophical opinions, isn’t there also something enviable about a period that took its ideas that seriously?


So, I hate to make my first cross post on Graham a bit critical, since I usually agree with him. But this time, not so much. I don’t understand this mythology that we entered in an age of play in which no one took anything seriously. The culture wars were serious and while I know Graham has no love for some of the po-mo culture warriors, the effect of the 80s on the academy, I would argue, has been for the better. Would we want to return to the way English departments were run in the 70s? Would we want the intellectual exclusion of vast areas of knowledge simply because they didn’t come from the west or they were deemed feminine? I’m not saying that at times there weren’t excesses, but surely if it had Bill Bennett upset and stepping away from the slot machines long enough to decry the death of the American Academy, then it couldn’t have been all bad. (I’m letting my snark there get ahead of decent logic.) In any event, whatever one might think, this was not an era where people didn’t take their ideas seriously, and in fact that was often the complaint: people were too serious and everything became too political. Anyway, we still live in an era of Christian-on-Christian exclusions and violence, so it’s a myth to think that anywhere in the culture–the academy, the school boards of Kansas, or the churches of the Midwest, for example–that ideas aren’t taken seriously.

This reminds me, FYI, about the arguments over realism. As I noted to Graham once in an email, it’s not as if there are anti-realists. I just don’t know how that way of framing the debate is helpful. I mean, even if you think we live in a world of simulacra where the map is on the same ontological level as the landscape, then you are very much taking simulacra seriously. And you are very much taking it as “real.” Just as Hegel took ideas as “real.” Just as Husserl took the lifeworld as “real.” Just as Foucault took discursive power formations to be “real.” What matters, then, is the question of materialism: what do you take to be real and does this “real” have the correlationist effect of cutting out broad swaths of that real from philosophical consideration?

Rules of Engagement

I’m teaching Žižek’s Violence yesterday, and I could aim at a number of questions I would have about his approach to the question of violence. I’ll take that up in a later post. What I want to zero in on is his description of Maoism at the end of the book, which is a type of argument that is everywhere in Continental philosophy but makes no sense upon any quick thinking of it. Žižek’s claim—no doubt to tweak Badiou a bit—is to say Maoism’s “permanent revolution” is structurally the same as post-industrial capitalism: create and destroy, leave the political ever unstable and thus renewable, and so on. 

Now, this argument has been made about deconstruction (e.g., Jameson), and just about everything someone wants to say is “bad.” But doesn’t it ever matter that the content of a given position is utterly different? Whatever problems Maoism may have, its similarity to the logic of capitalism is silly. In fact, only a few pages previously, Žižek argues that though “divine violence” and “revolutionary violence” may be structurally similar to what Benjamin calls “mythic violence” or what would be just a revolution for the sake of grabbing power (rather than attempting to call an end to the system altogether), the crucial difference is the goals and more importantly, the change in the symbolic (often oblique to the political actors) that a true revolutionary violence could bring about. But apparently, it’s enough to say that, well, by some rather simple formulations Maoism is really like capitalism (except, you know, it’s a political logic, not an economic one, however we might tease that difference out) such that, well, it should not be “surprising” that the cultural revolution gave way to the post-Mao “reforms” of the late 70s/early 80s in China. Such that now you’re more likely to find books in Beijing on how to be a good manager than to find a copy of the red book. But there was, of course, a little history in the way between the Cultural Revolution and the events of the late 70s, not least the death of Mao. But I’m going on too long in even taking on this argument…

It’s an argument too clever by half: deconstruction is not capitalist; Heidegger is not capitalist; Foucault’s view of power is not capitalist. Heck, I’ve been thinking: maybe Meillassoux’s speculative realism is just another logic of capitalism in disguise: the pure possibility of the virtual (that is, the chaotic in-itself) such that all things and indeed all physical laws are utterly contingent and thus could change at any moment–hmm, just like capitalist globalization which makes all manner of life contingent, even the supposed laws that would give us a sense of continuity into the future. 

Or maybe the worst capitalist logic would be to see it mirrored in all things…