Saturday, December 19, 2015

Roger Scruton on the Postmodern Turn

Even if we do not have a very deep connection with Scruton's own loyalties and ideals, this essay has some excellent insights. Excerpts:
"..And reflecting on this I noticed certain peculiar and recurring features of all the literature that I have mentioned. First it is literature directed at an enemy. All of it is devoted to describing the ruses and machinations that maintain the existing order in being, and also to describing that order as oppressive, machine-like, and in some deep sense alien. Secondly, the nonsense, although it cannot be deciphered intellectually, in terms of the true and the false or the valid and the invalid, can be easily deciphered politically. It is directed nonsense, and it is directed at the enemy. It is not just the existence of the enemy that is under attack. The assault is aimed primarily at the language through which the enemy lays claim to the world, the language that we know as rational argument and the pursuit of truth. 'The love of truth,' declared Jacques Lacan, 'is the love of this weakness whose veil we have lifted; it is the love of what truth hides, which is called castration.'[6] The love of truth, therefore, has no independent validity, being merely a disguise worn by the weaker party. There is no real commodity at issue save power: the enemy shoots out words, and so do we. And victory is brought by the magic wand, the square root of minus one which, waved in the face of the enemy, reveals that he has no balls.
Two other features of the 68 literature deserve mention. First there was an extraordinary agreement among all the writers concerning the nature of the enemy. The enemy was the bourgeoisie, the class that had (according to the Marxist caricature of history) monopolised the institutions of French society since the Revolution of 1789, and whose 'ideology' had spread through all the channels of communication since then. Behind the patriarchal family excoriated by de Beauvoir, behind the institutions of the prison and the madhouse debunked by Foucault, behind the 'machine désirante' of Deleuze and Guattari and the norms of heterosexual respectability mocked by Sartre in Saint Genet stood the same force, both economic and spiritual and too vast and pervasive to be identical with any merely human group, the force of the bourgeoisie. The amateur revolutionaries to whom I would speak were very unclear, as a rule, as to what they hoped to put in the place of the 'system' and the 'structures' that they were intent on destroying. But they were united in their conception of the enemy, and in the determination to destroy him or it. The inimical bourgeois was an all-pervasive abstraction, which could be encountered anywhere, and whose presence was proved precisely by the sudden eruption into consciousness of an implacable desire to attack. If the impulse arose to turn over a car and set fire to it, then this car was a symbol and a possession of the bourgeoisie. If you were stirred to anger by the sight of a couple respectably dressed and walking arm and arm through the street, then that proved they were members of the bourgeoisie. If the sight of a policeman led you to pick up a stone, then that was because policemen in general, and this one in particular, are bourgeois agents. If a book, a picture or a piece of music offended you, then that was a proof of its bourgeois origins, and if you could not pass a priest without mocking and insulting him, this was the clearest sign that religion is a bourgeois institution. Defoe wrote at the time of Queen Anne that the streets of London 'were full of stout fellows prepared to fight to the death against Popery, without knowing whether it be a man or a horse'. So was it true of the Paris of my youth, that its streets were full of young people prepared to fight to the death against the bourgeoisie, without knowing whether it be an idea or a uniform, and certainly not knowing that, by any reasonable understanding of the term, they themselves were it. One other feature of the literature of 68 deserves mention, because it bears on the lasting influence that this literature has had, especially on academic studies in America. Behind all the flamboyance and the nonsense it was possible to discern the vestiges of previous ideas – ideas that had been alive at the end of the war, when Paris was a centre of serious intellectual debate and when the post-war generation was attempting to shake off the memory of occupation and betrayal, and to conceal the bad things that it had felt and done. The discussions of the Prague school of linguistics, members of which had sought refuge in France in the 1930s, and who had been inspired by the work of Saussure, were absorbed into those of academic Marxism and literary Freudianism, to produce the peculiar synthesis that we find in the work of Roland Barthes. The distinctions between 'signified and signifier', between langue and parole, between phoneme and morpheme, entered the new language, alongside the theories of base and superstructure, use value and exchange value, production and exploitation taken from Marx and the theories of repression and the libido borrowed from Freud. The distinctions and theories were stirred together in the great cauldron that sat in the revolutionary fire, and extraordinary and exciting results often followed, such as Lacan's proof that 'schizophrenia', and I quote from one of the great man's followers, 'designates a purely metonymic form of desire untrammelled by the metaphoric associations of equivalence and meaning imposed on desire by social and/or linguistic codes operating in the name of the father'.[7] Or Guattari's proof that, by getting beyond the signifying semiologies in which we have hitherto been bound to become 'a-signifying semiotic machines' we will 'free desire-production, the singularities of desire, from the signifiers of national, familial, personal, racial, humanist, and transcendent values (including the semiotic myth of a return to nature), to the pre-signifying world of a-semiotic encodings'.[8] The monsters of unmeaning that loom in this prose attract our attention because they are clothed in the fragments of theories, picked up from the aftermath of forgotten battles – the Marxist theory of production, the Saussurean theory of the signifier, the Freudian theory of the Oedipus complex, all I should say, thoroughly refuted by subsequent science, but all somehow retrieved by the Parisian scavengers, and given a ghoulish after-life in the steam above the cauldron.

....These tell us that the world is in the hands of the Other; that the other is capitalism, bourgeois society, patriarchy, the family, in other words, the array of traditional power-structures from which we must be liberated; that we can understand and decipher the secrets through which these structures are maintained in being; and that by understanding the Other we empower the self. In short, the metaliterature that has arisen in the wake of 68 consists of spells, with which to subdue an alien world and open a path to liberation. And that is why it has secured its extraordinary following. To me this is the most important cultural fact: not that nonsense should survive and propagate itself. This is nothing new, as we know from the history of alchemy and 'esoteric doctrine' – the history of dullness, as Pope called it, in a satire as pertinent today as it was more than two centuries ago. Even if we lack a plausible epidemiology of nonsense,[13] there is no mystery in the fact that nonsense, once introduced, has a natural capacity to reproduce itself.

...The answer, I believe, is membership. There are broadly two motives for embracing an intellectual movement: one is the love of truth, the other the need for membership. Religions pretend to address the first of those motives, while in fact recruiting the second. Science ignores the second and promotes the first. But the humanities have always been caught in an awkward position between the two. The common sense curriculum frames the study of art and literature in the language of truth: it asks you to collect the data, to evaluate them, to draw conclusions as to their lasting worth and their place in the wider scheme of things. It does not promise to make sense of the world, to bring companionship or love, still less does it bring an offer of redemption. Young people are drawn to the humanities, however, because they have felt in themselves the need for something other than bare truth and argument. They are drawn by a primal human need, which is for the rite of passage, the transition into the community. The existence of this primal need was one of the major discoveries of French anthropology at the turn of the 20th century. And what quickly became clear in the wake of thinkers like Arnold Van Gennep and Claude Lévi-Strauss is that modern societies don't provide for it. Rites of passage, in post-industrial society, are truncated or non-existent, and this is one reason why so many people find the escape from adolescence so hard.

...Take a sentence like this (from an essay on Deleuze): 'social production is not contraction on a progressive, historical continuum or a subject-orientated linearity, but is a resonation of the virtual as a fractal attractor.'[16] Taken out of context that sentence is nonsense; but so, you will discover, is the context. On the other hand it is futile to complain that the sentence does not mean anything, or that there is no way either to refute or to confirm what it says. For that is its point. By writing in this way the author is displaying her membership: she is showing that she has undergone the ordeal of initiation, in which her mind was stripped of the old and oppressive meanings, and offered a new and purer way of thinking, in which truth has no voice, as sin has no voice in the mind of the born-again Christian.

...Take a sentence like this (from an essay on Deleuze): 'social production is not contraction on a progressive, historical continuum or a subject-orientated linearity, but is a resonation of the virtual as a fractal attractor.'[16] Taken out of context that sentence is nonsense; but so, you will discover, is the context. On the other hand it is futile to complain that the sentence does not mean anything, or that there is no way either to refute or to confirm what it says. For that is its point. By writing in this way the author is displaying her membership: she is showing that she has undergone the ordeal of initiation, in which her mind was stripped of the old and oppressive meanings, and offered a new and purer way of thinking, in which truth has no voice, as sin has no voice in the mind of the born-again Christian.

...But what is the salvation that this community offers? The freedom to 'speak in tongues' has a certain value, certainly; but in itself it is no lasting consolation. The born-again soul requires solidarity, immersion in a cause, the sense of standing side-by-side with fellow initiates in the indestructible phalanx of the saved. Politics enters the liturgy as the binding promise of redemption, the thing that holds the community together in defiance of the world. If you ask why the politics should be invariably left-wing, and subversive of the 'power structures' of the bourgeois order, then surely the question, conceived in this way, will answer itself. The membership that is offered is one of repudiation – a defiance of a social order that has offered no clear path to inclusion, and which makes no obvious space for an academic leisured class. Of course, there will be schisms and heresies, just as there are in Marxism, Freudianism and the other subversive movements of recent times. But there will also be a shared posture of negation. Academies are in the business of defining themselves as another space outside the 'bourgeois' order, a space in which old hierarchies, customs and rites of passage have no authority, and into which young people can be recruited at the very time of life when recruitment has become an urgent need – a need of the blood.
...

By the way, I think there is another aspect that this particular essay does not touch upon: and that is the important role played by "postcolonialism" and the various native informants recruited into the postmodern academy; it is these (generally super-elite westernized, left-wing) intellectuals that give the postmodern turn some bare-minimum legitimacy and a certain frisson that can only come from actual occupation, imprisonment, cultural imperialism, appropriation and shedding of blood. Something that narcissistic bullcrap alone could not have managed to carry off on its own steam forever. I am not saying postcolonial BS is all true. Clearly a lot of it is just BS, or consists of facts shorn of context, or cherry picked shamelessly (or ignorantly; never ascribe to malice what can be explained by ignorance).. But at least it still contains traces of real events. Actual invasions, decapitations, floggings, caged displays and hangings. Without them, where would the postmodern turn go?
I like to think that our elite desi intellectuals, by their brave willingness to "witness" and regurgitate the nonsense generator, and to generously donate some facts to it, have provided some of the fuel that keeps this crap alive; We are owed more professorships than we have got ;)

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