Far too easily impressed

Image: Pieter Brueghel
“The Flatterers” (1592)

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Earlier today, I tried to make my way through this rather long, theory-heavy Facebook thread. It popped up on my feed and some of the first few comments seemed pretty interesting. You know: it concerned concepts and authors like totality, status quo ante, the proletariat, Jameson. Figured I could maybe dig some of the Deleuze and communization stuff, even if I agreed with it less. Then all of a sudden all these theoretical accretions and academic encrustations began to glom onto the original topics under discussion at this crazy, exponential rate — sometimes as backstory or context, but more often as just syncretistic add-ons and meaningless whirligigs, an intellectually promiscuous process of addition, lunatical topsy-turvydom, etc.

Maybe I just didn’t know enough of these theories or theorists, but I don’t think that’s it. Really, I’m not anti-theory at all; I’m good at it. I have a lot more patience for dense theoretical discourse than many people I know. (That much should be obvious to anyone who reads or even glances passingly through this blog). But there’s some massive leveling our generation needs to do. Most of what’s been written recently or being written right now needs to be mercilessly torn down, without remorse or concern about hurt feelings. The elbow-rubbing and chummy collegiality needs to go. We must separate the wheat from the chaff, the Hearts—Stars—Clovers—Blue-Moons from the ordinary cereal. Honestly, we’re far too easily impressed with ourselves and each other. Most of what we produce is total garbage, and we should have no problem owning up to that. No more compliments or gentle “critiques” that just mildly “complicate” or “problematize” whatever bullshit we’re on about lately. Could be way off but who knows.

Anyway, I communicated these sentiments more or less exactly as I just presented them here to the posters in this thread. It was probably ill-advised decision to do so, bound to piss off everyone involved. People tend to get really touchy and insecure whenever their intellectual credentials are challenged. Of course, I wasn’t looking to call anyone out or target anybody in particular, though I could have, but leave things at this fairly generalized level. Still, most in the thread had enough of a sense of humor about themselves to move on quickly and not take it really personally. Except for one person: Louis-Georges Schwartz. He had already complained about the supposed “theater of cruelty” operative in the “spectacle” that is my blog, and took exception to the brief piece I wrote up lampooning the feminist journal LIES. Both because I felt his contributions to the thread were particularly egregious in terms of their jargonistic excess, leaning liberally on Deleuzean mumbo-jumbo and other “continental” gibberish, and because he continued his crybaby routine by blocking me over a Facebook comment, I’m going to repost a couple of Schwartz’s logorrheic gems. As one irreverent left communist remarked upon scrolling through the thread, some of this shit almost reads as deliberate self-parody:

1) Deleuze does not have a “Return to Bergson book” though he did write a 1966 mongraph on the philosopher and uses Bergson’s concepts through out his career. 2) The question of how to articulate the dialectic with duration / a certain deleuzeanism is the secret subject of “The Present Moment” and part of the reason I was ownering about was of articulating the dialectic, deleuzian genetics, and badouvian generation this spring. 3) ‘the collective” (not exactly a TC term doesn’t have to “collective borrow reproductive issues from the culture of private ownership” but it does have to start the future with reproduction as it is or it will be repressing a struggle (because what you are calling “the collective,” Tim, is nothing but a rift, a gendered *ecart.* 4) Any decent person is eschatological. The “Stationary State’ is an eschatology too.

This too, though it abruptly ends with an announcement that he’s blocking me (he cutely even took the trouble to tag me, an uncommon courtesy):

To a certain extent it seems that preserving the systemic dialectic is an alibi ti call for a party or a subject. Articulating the historical and structural dialectics then becomes what we call the task of the party or subject (“clarifying the desires of the working class” / Strategy) and the legislative fantasies of Badiou or Kant’s “duty” can then be produced in all their Oedipal micro-fascism. The above passage is Deleuzean in so far as it takes the Bergsonian notion of duration to be a description of time which takes into account the changes wrote by the passage of time in the syntheses of time themselves. In that model the “subject of history” becomes history itself (just as in Bergson the subject becomes the universe and philosophy converts itself to theology.) Considering the Simon piece is largely about struggle within struggle, the Bergson cite doesn’t seem exactly corrective. The question thisk, I think: is thew temporality described in the citation from Simon above conceptually distinct from the temporality entailed in Autonomia (The time of labor trying exit the plane of capital.) TC needs such a time. The movement image gives the time of the Taylorist “scientific management”/ moment of subsumption and the classical worker’s movements, the time image the time of autonomous labor and relations of refusal. The time of rifts (the post 200 period when the wage demand has lost salience in the capitalist core needs a third time, a time that holds when the social as such has been replaced by economy.) Also, I’m blocking Ross.

There are some writers who can range freely over theorists and philosophers from different epochs and traditions, invoking obscure concepts left and right irrespective of their original context  writers like Adorno, Jameson, or even perhaps Benjamin Noys. Needless to say, as should be obvious from just these passing remarks, Louis-Georges Schwartz is not one of these writers, or even remotely of their caliber. He has none of that casual command of the topic at hand, none of the mastery over the concepts to wield them in a way that isn’t absurd and confounding. Also, and I want to reiterate this, it never ceases to amuse me that people actually block each other over stupid Facebook arguments. Pretty sad.

Furthermore, did what I wrote really come off as that anti-theory to begin with? That really was not my intention. If anything it was meant as a call to arms, to demand more from ourselves and each other, to strive for better and more discerning theoretical argumentation. Maybe I’m a bit off, as I said, and my concerns are misplaced. This could after all just be another empty call for ruthless criticism. I don’t know, though. Marx and Engels were hardly ever impressed by their colleagues or contemporaries. Engels said something to the effect that the only English text from 1820-1845 that deserved to be translated was Thomas Carlyle’s Past and Present. And Marx repeatedly referred to essays Lassalle sent to him, ostensibly supportive of Marx and Engels’ position, as “urine” (I think we can agree he was justified in issuing this judgment).

Update

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11:08am, 10—30—2013: Terence Blake, an Australian-born philosopher living in France influenced by Paul Feyerabend and Gilles Deleuze, has written up a response to this post in which he reasserts his admiration for a figure like Deleuze while at the same time lamenting the use to which his ideas have since been put. As he puts it, the great French metaphysician inadvertently ended up “diffusing a swarm of ‘words of power’ to be wielded by narcissistic poseurs.” You can read “Where have all the arguments gone?” on his blog.

19 thoughts on “Far too easily impressed

  1. I agree that one big thing that is missing on Facebook and on the blogosphere is plain old argument. People seem incapable of following even fairly simple arguments, and unwilling to provide any themselves. Fairly basic emotions generate in groups and their scornful exclusions of not just different opinions, but of different ways of expressing the same opinions. Abstract terminology is used to express infantile squeals of smugness and scorn.

    This phenomenon is not new, as your conclusion shows. I would add Paul Feyerabend to the mix. In 1978 he published SCIENCE IN A FREE SOCIETY. Part 3 collected his various replies to critics, who he considered had made no effort to understand and reply to his arguments, under the title “Conversations with Illiterates”. In his preface he declares that he wanted to “inform the wider public of the astounding illiteracy of some ‘professionals’…political philosophy and philosophy of science have become sinks of illiterate self expression (using forbidding technical terms, of course”.

    I confess to liking French philosophical style. I have lived in France for 30 years now, and I find that some English and American books are “clearer” in French because the translator has had to get very clear on the meaning and makes use of the more abstract vocabulary of French to express the concepts that are sometimes inconspicuous in the more colloquial style of the English. Sometimes for the opposite reason I find a French book of philosophy clearer in English. This is true when the translator actually understands the text and does a good job on the translation. Of course something important is lost in the process too, but it is not all loss.

    I am so used to this phenomenon that I do it in my head all the time even within one language. In English I pass from say a Deleuzian-Badiousian-Laruellian type of jargon to a more common sense way of talking, and vice versa, and I think that it is a helpful heuristic trick that may often be illuminating and may lead to bullshitting. I think that this is one of the things that Deleuze meant by “being bilingual inside one language”. I regret that Deleuze did not always give us a good model of such philosophical bilinguism, although he did do it more than one may think from reading his imitators. His courses (many of which are now on line), his interviews, his LETTER TO A SEVERE CRITIC, much of DIALOGUES, his ABC PRIMER, all give a more intuitive and far less jargon-intensive account of his ideas than his more arduous conceptual works. Badiou too has made considerable efforts to accompany his difficult works with more accessible texts. So if someone likes and uses their ideas that is no excuse for monotonous jargonising.

    • Thanks for the reply and the appreciative post.

      Really, as you say, it’s unfair to place too much blame on Deleuze, even if his philosophy and general style of thought lent itself to abuse. I think Benjamin Noys provides a pretty thorough and sympathetic critique of Deleuze on his own terms in Persistence of the Negative, without blaming him for the mischief his self-styled disciples have made of his concepts or methodology.

      Your crusade against the excesses of Speculative Realism and Object-Oriented Ontology has been a noble one, even if your criticisms have largely been ignored. A few years ago, I ran afoul of that crowd. Ray Brassier, someone with whom I’ve corresponded who’s fairly receptive to Deleuze’s ideas, had some choice words for many such internet “philosophers” and “theorists.”

      The internet probably just provides a medium for the extension of a dynamic that was already at work in the 1970s and 1980s, with the institutionalization of the ’68ers and the New Left in the monolithic, metaphysical Academy. Again, the disciples latched onto many of the more problematic tendencies of this generation and ran roughshod over intelligent discourse and debate. Of course it’s important to guard against a dismissive anti-intellectualism that seeks to reduce everything to “common sense,” but by that same score it’s necessary to debunk the academic cult of self-congratulation.

  2. Pingback: WHERE HAVE ALL THE ARGUMENTS GONE? Notes on the smugification of intellectual life | AGENT SWARM

  3. Narcissism is rampant in academia. All these kids with all their blogs, they think they’re soooo interesting. But this cancerous growth of philosophy, could the cure for it really be more (a more pure, more true) philosophy, or is it time to abandon ship? Are you part of the cure or part of the disease?

  4. “Everybody I know is just like me,
    They’re stupid!” ~John Giorno

    Facebook to me is like standing in line at the supermarket or sitting at the bus stop. Sometimes you hear something interesting. Sometimes you run into friends you actually want to talk to, but most of the time its the equivalent of bad magazines and unhealthy candy.

    I like Raskolnikow’s ‘cancerous growth of philosophy’ remark. It reminds me of John Cage’s lecture “I Have Nothing To Say, and I’m Saying It”, except John had a lot to offer, and he offered it well.

  5. The fact that he blocked you was the only thing from his post that made any sense. ;)

    I also dig philosophy, but only as method, not as substance. If you grasp historical/dialectical materialism as a method, then you can just go at actual architecture, or in my case archaeology. No need to pay any attention to people who think theory is something substantive: they are mere idealists.

  6. You’re being somewhat disingenuous here. In the posts above Louis-George was responding to specific comments by Phil King. They were having a discussion about Bergson and Deleuze. The only thing that was about you was that Louis-George had decided to block you for other reasons.

    • I’d be happy to post Phil King’s earlier comments in the thread in question, should he be okay with it. Unfortunately, I seriously doubt that it would help clarify matters in the least. King’s comment is highly technical as well, though in his defense it seems more or less strictly exegetical in its focus on Deleuze and Bergson. Personally, I found it far easier to follow than Schwartz’s terse and scattershot response.

  7. Pingback: On the term “identitarian” | The Charnel-House

  8. I feel like I’m on here in the same (relative) position described by this article’s author and, essentially offering an equivalent critique.

    Except that I have the outrageous notion that the flotsam and jetsam of the supermarket candy is more to my taste the ‘trashier’ and less informed and gutteral it becomes for this, to my view, is ‘real theory’, the theory of someone who doesn’t know what an ‘academy’ is never mind why some people who know what it is think that it IS something.

    The deleuzians of grandeur are all about us, earning enough to forget about the reality of those they abstractly critique. Never in history would a republic have involved the guillotining of academics but, really, that’s just where the monarchy now resides.

  9. Pingback: Far too easily impressed | Research Material

  10. Self-congratulation, agreed. But note that in England, and perhaps in Europe more generally, this kind of back slapping does not occur on the same scale. It is therefore most likely the result of the American conversion of the humanities into a marketplace for the indulgence of opinions, which springs primarily from the undergrad/professor relationship, but has developed to permeate the wider intellectual culture. So what you’re treating as a philosophical or moral problem is probably just down to the wider privatisation of academia, which is to say, it won’t be solved by attacking individuals on social media.

    • Perhaps not. Your point is well taken. It is probably the case that individuals like Louis-Georges Schwartz are more effect than cause when it comes to this tendency. Calling him or anyone else out in public might make for an entertaining read, or provide occasion for some to commiserate over the lackluster state of intellectual discourse in our time, but it does little to solve the problem.

      the American conversion of the humanities into a marketplace for the indulgence of opinions

      This is a great line, and I might even have to borrow it at some point. But I’m curious as to why you’d identify it as a peculiarly American phenomenon. Not saying I don’t believe you; it’s just I feel intuitively that it’s a bit more widespread than that.

      • Well it’s just that in my experience this kind of thing is far less prevalent in Europe than it is over here, and most European universities are public. That’s not to say that this won’t change, because even our universities are increasingly being privatised. But in the US there’s a general fear to make/accept criticism, or indeed strong but polite argument, as a form of intellectual discourse. All of this can be traced to the peculiar labour model, namely tenure, adjunctification, and the hierarchy that comes with it, student evaluations, etc,

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