Tuesday, September 12, 2006
Theory Tuesday Act V scene iii
And now for the third and final installment of Theory Tuesday (Special Raymond Williams Edition). The moment a few of you have been waiting for!
But first we have to address two points made deep in the comments thread of installment number two. Here’s Tom in comment 30:
there is still a great deal here that is problematic for the later development of cultural studies that Williams did so much to found. There is a sense in which the continuously variable determinations that Williams insists on blur the lines between oppositional and dominant in an unproductive manner (the difficulty of determining the relation of oppositional to dominant has all too often been an alibi for a quietist politics), to say nothing of the fact that the question of whether setting “the bounds of the thinkable” can’t amount to hegemony sitting on your chest and telling you what to think is still an open one.
To say nothing, indeed! I still think that hegemony operates by setting the bounds of the thinkable (in the US, a universal right to health care is barely thinkable; a universal right to paid vacations and family leave is not) rather than by overt propaganda exercises like The Path to 9/11. Left media critics make much of the fact (to take a random example) that millions of Americans believe that Iraq was involved in 9/11, and I have heard any number of my colleagues adduce this as evidence of the Foxification of national discourse. But the curious thing is that on September 12, 2001, millions of Americans believed that Iraq was involved in 9/11, and Iraq’s refusal to denounce the attacks didn’t exactly reassure those people. The question remains, then, of whether Fox News actively recruits people to the “Iraq was involved” agenda, or whether it simply confirms the Cheney-Rice conspiracy theorists in what they already believe. And behind that, the larger question looms of what Gramsci’s theory of hegemony would make of Fox—and other overtly propagandistic media—in general. And then there’s another question about the meaning of “consent”: as you know if you read these windy theory-things of mine, I keep insisting, against the Chomsky/Herman “manufacturing consent” model of culture and society, which I think smacks too much of old-school “false consciousness,” that consent is not manufactured but actively won by hegemonic blocs. But when the winning of consent is based largely on mass deception, as it was in the runup to the war in Iraq, then the difference between consent that is “manufactured” and consent that is “won” looks like the difference between orange-red and red-orange in the Crayola box—and a topic of interest only to pettifogging theorists who wonder exactly how many Marxists can dance on the head of a pin. (Or who have a masochistic interest in figuring out, to a couple of decimal places, whether they were defeated because the hegemonic bloc worked primarily by deception or persuasion.) Moreover, it is not clear how much of that consent has to be active, or whether people can “consent” to a hegemonic agenda partly by shrugging and saying “yeah, whatever.” The danger of putting too much emphasis on passive consent is that it leads back to vanguardism: the people cannot represent themselves, they must be represented. (Or: the hegemonic bloc prevents them from understanding their true position in the system of ideological production, so I, the Theorist, will have to speak for them.) But the danger of putting too little emphasis on passive consent is that it underestimates the powerful political value of apathy and disaffection. After all, if you can convince people that they have no power to affect things like national health care policies or decisions to go to war, you’ve won a good deal of the field right there.
So that’s why invoking “hegemony” should properly give rise to a series of questions rather than a series of answers. Now for “totality.” I said it was as troublesome a concept as ever, and Colin Danby courteously showed up in a series of comments (hey, what’s with the patterns of three? am I being mocked again?) to say, in comment 82, that Williams sometimes nods—or at least tries to sneak one by us while we’re nodding:
There’s a dubious move late on page 7. Having enlarged the category of base and moved to totality, RW then worries about what would happen if we gave up the concept of superstructure altogether. He says that the reason we keep a concept of structure is that we need it to analyze institutions like law. He presents this with a very simple unmasking-type critique: these institutions which present themselves as “natural, or as having universal validity or significance, simply have to be seen as expressing and ratifying the domination of a particular class.”
Note the weakness of the assertion “simply have to be seen.” The idea seems to be that we need to rescue literature from philistine concepts like base-superstructure by situating it behind enough insulating concepts like residual/emergent to give it considerable autonomy, but this kind of crude, grubby theorizing is perfectly OK for analyzing, say, law.
And here is where, to take Michael’s metaphor, Foucault may have transferred to a better bus. Because surely, if he did anything, Foucault showed that it is possible to analyze institutions critically without having recourse to base-superstructure. Indeed from this vantage point Williams’ notion of “intention” is not a contribution to analysis, it’s simply an a priori assumption.
So superstructure is held up with a slender prop indeed, and I think this plays a large role in the subsequent argument, because it creates one pole in the tension Williams is working with—given the assumption of the overall social-ontological validity of base-superstructure, we then need to rescue culture. Whereas without that prop culture wouldn’t need rescuing at all.
Damn! Good catch, Colin. That is indeed a dubious move, precisely because it assumes what it needs to prove—namely, the classical Marxist proposition that the faux-natural character of “laws, constitutions, theories, ideologies” needs to be unmasked as the expression of a particular class, and that “if these institutions and their ideologies are not perceived as having that kind of dependent and ratifying relationship, if their claims to universal validity or legitimacy are not denied and fought, then the class character of the society can no longer be seen.” Williams attributes this view to the “perception of many militants” who “have to fight such institutions and notions as well as fighting economic battles,” but it seems pretty clear that he endorses it himself. The question remains, however, as it remains for theories of “social construction” in general, whether the unmasking and demystifying move does all the salutary political work claimed for it. And the ancillary question remains—one would have thought, if one were me, that this question had been significantly complicated by Gramsci’s theory of hegemony—of whether one can speak so blithely of laws, constitutions, theories and ideologies as being the expressions of a single, unified class. For while it’s true (for example) that the U.S. Constitution is partly the expression of the interests of white men of property (some of whose property included other human beings), it seems more useful, as well as more accurate, to speak of class fractions and factions—otherwise we’d never be able to understand why some rich people are so deluded as to support progressive causes that involve the redistribution of wealth. Let alone poor people who support policies that contribute to their immiseration.
And I agree that when Williams resorts to the unearned phrase, “simply have to be seen” (i.e., they have to be seen this way because the theory demands it), we’d be better off on L’autobus Foucault. For the analysis of institutions without recourse to base-superstructure implies (or simply demonstrates) not only that institutions have their specific histories and trajectories but also, more broadly, that the invocation of “totality” may not mean anything more than the faith that “it all hangs together” (as Colin suggests in comment 46). Now, for those of you who didn’t make it down to comment 46 last week, Colin opened it by asking, “are Jameson and his admirers too eager to nominate silly antitotalizers as the foil for their preferred totalization?”, to which the most judicious answer is probably Bugs Bunny’s “ehhhhhh . . . could be!” (But then, there was a great deal of silly antitotalizing going on roughly 15-20 years ago, so I tend to cut Jameson some slack here.) And the reason Colin raised the question was that (if I’m reading him correctly) he worries that an emphasis on “totality,” even of the most provisional and tentative kind, can slip too easily back into precisely the kind of brutal Lucien Goldmann-esque reductionism in which superstructural elements (like literary characters) “correspond” somehow to the means of production. As Colin puts it:
It seems much too easy, especially at this rarified level, to slide from a statement about logical preconditions for analysis to totality to one particular kind of totality. Another way to put the question is to ask what room is left for political economy as critical, skeptical analysis after these moves. My suspicion, and I hope you’ll tell me I’m wrong, is the “capitalism” gets pushed up to the level of the worldspirit or political unconscious in a way that puts it beyond the work of a critical political economy.
Nope, you’re not wrong to have that suspicion. In the book I’m writing now (well, not right now), I remark on the strange phenomenon in which members of the academic left inveigh against reductive and monocausal explanations of world-historical events in their morning lectures and wear “No Blood for Oil” buttons during the afternoon teach-in. Stuart Hall was particularly adept at spotting this kind of slide and calling it by name, and we’ll deal with him one of these Tuesdays if I can keep up this manic pace of theory-explicatin’.
Having said all that, I’ll move to the final sections of “Base and Superstructure,” which I find less satisfying than the rest of the essay (though one of them, “Residual and Emergent Cultures,” has been hugely influential). There’s a very unfortunate sentence in the “Class and Human Practice” section, where Williams is writing of “practices and meanings” that fall outside the dominant culture, and notes that “since from the whole Marxist tradition literature was seen as an important activity, indeed a crucial activity, the Soviet state is very much sharper in investigating areas where different versions of practice, different meanings and values, are being attempted and expressed.” Come again? Investigating? Yes, well, it was 1973, and I remember from my dissertation/first book research that there were plenty of American critics at the time who were willing to lament that thanks to the repressive tolerance (cough, cough) of American society, Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow was given the National Book Award, and was thereby “incorporated” into the Matrix, whereas Pynchon’s counterparts in the Eastern bloc at least had the advantage of being properly repressed and exiled. As for me, I’d suggest that the word “investigating” in Williams’ sentence could be profitably replaced with “stamping out.” But you know how I am about such things.
The section on “Residual and Emergent Cultures,” however, is justly famous. I’ll explain my reservations about it in a moment; for now, I’ll just step back and quote.
I have next to introduce a further distinction, between residual and emergent forms, both of alternative and of oppositional culture. By “residual” I mean that some experiences, meanings, and values, which cannot be verified or cannot be expressed in terms of the dominant culture, are nevertheless lived and practiced on the basis of the residue—cultural as well as social—of some previous social formation. There is a real case of this in certain religious values, by contrast with the very evident incorporation of most religious meanings and values into the dominant system. The same is true, in a culture like Britain, of certain notions derived from a rural past, which have a very significant popularity. A residual culture is usually at some distance from the effective dominant culture, but one has to recognize that, in real cultural activities, it may get incorporated into it. This is because some part of it, some version of it—and especially if the residue is from some major area of the past—will in many cases have had to be incorporated if the effective dominant culture is to make sense in those areas. . . .
By “emergent” I mean, first, that new meanings and values, new practices, new significances and experiences, are continually being created. But there is then a much earlier attempt to incorporate them, just because they are part—and yet not a defined part—of effective contemporary practice. Indeed it is significant in our own period how very early this attempt is, how alert the dominant culture now is to anything that can be seen as emergent. We have then to see, first, as it were a temporal relation between a dominant culture and on the one hand a residual and on the other hand an emergent culture. But we can only understand this if we can make distinctions, that usually require very precise analysis, between residual-incorporated and residual not incorporated, and between emergent-incorporated and emergent not incorporated.
OK, let me say this first: the residual-dominant-emergent scheme is a Good Thing. It is a Good Thing insofar as it recognizes, as Marxist theory had been annoyingly reluctant to do, both the relative autonomy of culture and (relatedly) the fact that historical epochs and social formations are layered and polyphonic. Simply breaking things up into residual, dominant, and emergent (inc. and not- inc.) goes a long way toward making Marxist theory every bit as complex and contradictory as lived experience itself—as does the distinction between “class” and “class fraction.” So what if the Reagan and post-Reagan right wing in the United States combines a wistful evocation of old-tyme, small-town American values and a commitment to the evisceration of old-tyme small-town values by unfettered Wal-Martism? You were expecting maybe that the hegemonic bloc would be consistent and coherent? Get out from here with such silly notions!
But apart from the question of whether this Good Thing goes far enough, in and of itself, to recognize the kind of complexity and contradiction that makes hegemony work (and makes the world go ‘round), there’s the possibility that it can congeal into yet another Bad Thing, namely, the creation of Marxist Culture Charts according to which cultural practices are weighed in the scales and valued chiefly (or exclusively) for their degrees of cool radical emergentness and even cooler resistance to incorporation. When that kind of culture-charting meets up with the ritual glorification of the “counterculture” characteristic of some of the academic left, you wind up with . . . surprise! Reductive and predictable celebrations of this or that allegedly transgressive or counterhegemonic practice, whose transgressive counterhegemonicality is secured by its doubleplusgood position on the “emergent” “not incorporated” side of the grid.
Now, Williams actually doesn’t say “residual bad, emergent good,” but the implication is there nonetheless, with the alignment of the residual with the religious (boo!) and the rural (also boo!). (And, of course, with the possible alignment of the emergent with the utopian classless society Yet To Come.) However, even though Williams seems to stack the deck in this section, particularly when he insists that “our hardest task, theoretically, is to find a non-metaphysical and non-subjectivist explanation of emergent cultural practice” (thereby letting us know that the emergent is where all the good action is at), his theory does have the good sense to thumb its nose at any number of vanguardist theories of literature and culture, in which the poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world, seers and sages well avant of the garde:
It would be easy to say, it is a familiar rhetoric, that literature operates in the emergent cultural sector, that it represents the new feelings, the new meanings, the new values. We might persuade ourselves of this theoretically, by abstract argument, but when we read much literature, over the whole range, without the sleight-of-hand of calling Literature only that which we have already selected as embodying certain meanings and values at a certain scale of intensity, we are bound to recognize that the act of writing, the practices of discourse in writing and speech, the making of novels and poems and plays and theories, all this activity takes place in all areas of the culture.
Williams’s complaint here about the “sleight-of-hand” goes back to an earlier passage in which he’d spoken of the “selective tradition”—“that which, within the terms of an effective dominant culture, is always passed off as the tradition, the significant past” (and which, I would surmise, simply has to be seen as expressing and ratifying the domination of a particular class). These gestures can be read as, among other things, swipes at F. R. Leavis’s “great tradition” and the entire Arnold-Eliot-Leavis cultural tradition that shaped Williams’ thought from Culture and Society onward, which is to say, shaped Williams’ thought. And in their insistence on the legerdemain by which the full range of literature (think of the sense in which “literature” still means “all written matter,” as in the injunction against handing out literature in the mall) is reduced to the narrow group of texts designated as Literature (“embodying certain meanings and values at a certain scale of intensity”), these gestures also helped set the stage for the Great Wars of the Canon in the 1980s.
And we’re still not done with this essay!
Now we get to talk about “Critical Theory as Consumption” and “Objects and Practices.” The first of these final two sections is brilliant. Like so:
What seems to me very striking is that nearly all forms of contemporary critical theory are theories of consumption. That is to say, they are concerned with understanding an object in such a way that it can profitably or correctly be consumed. The earliest stage of consumption theory was the theory of “taste,” where the link between the practice and the theory was direct in the metaphor. From taste there came the more elevated notion of “sensibility,” in which it was the consumption by sensibility of elevated or insightful works that was held to be the essential practice of reading, and critical activity was then a function of this sensibility. There were then more developed theories, in the 1920s with I. A. Richards, and later in New Criticism, in which the effects of consumption were studied directly. The language of the work of art as object then became more overt. “What effect does this work (‘the poem,’ as it was ordinarily described) have on me?” Or, “what impact does it have on me?”, as it was later to be put in a much wider area of communication studies.
And from there we could go to the raft of “media effects” theorists (on the right and the left) whose interest in culture has to do mainly with how and why it makes our kids violent and asocial and sullen and misogynist and also gay.
But before we go there, let’s just stop and enjoy the long view Williams provides here. Once upon a time, theorists from Horace to Sidney told poets how to write: “be pleasing and instructive,” they said (boiling things down a bit), “and oscillate between the general and the specific, so as to avoid the extremes of philosophy and history.” These days (where “these days” means “since Kant or thereabouts”), literary theories are theories of reading, of consumption. We Are All Theorists of Reception Aesthetics Now! Williams elaborates on the point in Marxism and Literature (1977), where he ties theory-as-consumption to the division of labor, arguing that in bourgeois aesthetic theory
art and thinking about art have to separate themselves, by ever more absolute abstraction, from the social processes within which they are still contained. Aesthetic theory is the main instrument of this evasion. In its concentration on receptive states, on psychological responses of an abstractly differentiated kind, it represents the division of labour in consumption corresponding to the abstraction of art as the division of labour in production.
And finally, we get to the last section, “Objects and Practices.” For Williams, the reign of “critical theory as consumption” is closely tied to the idea of the work of art as object, as a static, reified thing, whereas “in literature (especially in drama), in music and in a very wide area of the performing arts, what we permanently have are not objects but notations. These notations have then to be interpreted in an active way, according to the particular conventions.” In one sense this is uncontroversial, even cliché: Hamlet really is a different text each time you read it, and there have been (and can be) so many different stagings of the play that you could be bounded in a nutshell with it and count yourself a king of infinite space. But in another sense it troubles Williams’s distinction between “objects” and “notations” (or, to use the term he prefers here and in Marxism and Literature, “practices”), because if notations have to be interpreted in an active way, then they too give rise to a form of critical theory as consumption.
Williams opens the final section by announcing starkly (and a bit histrionically) that “the true crisis in cultural theory, in our own time, is between this view of the work of art as object and the alternative view of art as a practice”; he closes the first paragraph by announcing that “we have to break from the common practice of isolating the object and then discovering its components. On the contrary we have to discover the nature of a practice and then its conditions.” I don’t quite buy it. I agree that we shouldn’t isolate the work of art as object from its conditions of production and reception (or just fetishize it the way certain old-tyme art historians do! shudder—that would be far worse), but I don’t believe that the object/practice distinction gets you everything Williams promises. To be sure, it puts relations of production back on the table, thus helping to overcome that static and reductive base-superstructure model we set out to trouble in the first place, way back at the beginning of the essay. Likewise, it opens the door to all kinds of delicious historicizing and contextualizing. And yeah, it even helps us analyze, “as two forms of the same process, both [the practice’s] active composition and its conditions of composition, and in either direction this is a complex of extending active relationships.” But Williams contrasts this fun and dynamic and active-extending enterprise with a ridiculous caricature of Criticism As Usual, in which texts are sorted into file cabinets: “we identify it by certain leading features, we then assign it to a larger category, the genre, and then we may find the components of a genre in a particular social history (although in some variants of criticism not even that is done, and the genre is supposed to be some permanent category of the mind).” Whew! Treating the work of art as object sure makes you stupid. Clearly we have to discover the nature of a practice and then its conditions instead.
It is, I think, a strained and disappointing ending to a remarkable essay—almost as if Williams had ended with the cry, “Let the ruling classes tremble at Marxist cultural theory! The critics have nothing to lose but their objects. They have a practice to win.” But to his credit, Williams develops the argument further in Marxism and Literature, where—also to his credit—he takes on the brilliant and nuanced and completely forgotten 1936 monograph by Czech theorist Jan Mukarovsky, Aesthetic Function, Norm and Value as Social Facts. And if you’d like to find out what I have to say about the encounter between Williams and Mukarovsky, you can always read the introduction to this fine volume, which I haven’t hawked on this blog for many months now, mainy because I’m unaccountably shy about such things.
Well, folks, thanks for staying tuned to the Base and Superstructure Network all week. Let me know what you’d like to see by way of a postscript to this series; I can either visit Stuart Hall’s Land Without Guarantees or I can follow up on the objects-and-practices bit by excerpting and explaining my take on Williams’s take on Mukarovsky. Poor Mukarovsky’s not on anybody’s must-get-to list; he certainly wasn’t on the reading list for English 501 (nor was Hall). But I assure you that he’s worth your while if you care about smart, capacious theories of the aesthetic.
I’ll be back on Thursday with a brand new—dare I say emergent?—bloggy feature.
Monday, September 11, 2006
Horowitz defends Americans’ civil liberties against “brazen,” “damaging” attacks
On Friday, David Horowitz, general secretary of the David Horowitz Freedom Center and commissioner ex officio of Minitrue, lashed out at critics of “The Path to 9/11,” ABC-Disney-Rove’s factual docudrama about the factual history of Bill Clinton’s criminal negligence and how it left America unprepared for the attacks on the homeland that occurred five years ago today. In a FrontPage exclusive essay, Secretary Horowitz wrote,
The attacks by former president Bill Clinton, former Clinton Administration officials and Democratic US senators on Cyrus Nowrasteh’s ABC mini-series “The Path to 9/11” are easily the gravest and most brazen and damaging governmental attacks on the civil liberties of ordinary Americans since 9/11.
Secretary Horowitz, widely known and revered for his lifelong work as a civil rights activist, pointed out that criticism of “The Path to 9/11” violates the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth Act of 2004, which expressly forbids liberals from taking exception to imaginative re-enactments of their high crimes and misdemeanors. Secretary Horowitz noted that the Swift Boat Act has political roots that go back to the founding of the Republic, when Thomas Jefferson wrote his famous letter to James Madison on the importance of maintaining a free and open society that promotes the work of historical revisionists and fantasists:
There remains little Doubt among the opinions of Men, that the legitimacy of liberal Society rests on its willingness to support the Harangues of deranged and vicious Persons of the far Right, particularly if they be subsidized by media Conglomerates of vast Size.
To which, Secretary Horowitz added, Madison replied,
Nay, Thomas, I know of none who would doubt such a thing. And yet these be but empty Words, if we of liberal Mind do not further seek to ensure that these well-subsidized Harangues of the “Wing-Nuts” be promulgated throughout the breadth of the Nation, by means of every Channel public and private. For no Nation can long endure or prosper, unless it be sure to foster a mature political culture of Lying and Calumny.
Secretary Horowitz then called for the prosecution of far-left blogofascist Max Blumenthal, who, on Friday, wrote:
“The Path to 9/11” is produced and promoted by a well-honed propaganda operation consisting of a network of little-known right-wingers working from within Hollywood to counter its supposedly liberal bias. This is the network within the ABC network. Its godfather is far right activist David Horowitz, who has worked for more than a decade to establish a right-wing presence in Hollywood and to discredit mainstream film and TV production. On this project, he is working with a secretive evangelical religious right group founded by The Path to 9/11’s director David Cunningham that proclaims its goal to “transform Hollywood” in line with its messianic vision. . . .
Horowitz’s PR blitz began with an August 16 interview with [scriptwriter Cyrus] Nowrasteh on his FrontPageMag webzine. In the interview, Nowrasteh foreshadowed the film’s assault on Clinton’s record on fighting terror. “The 9/11 report details the Clinton’s administration’s response—or lack of response—to Al Qaeda and how this emboldened Bin Laden to keep attacking American interests,” Nowrasteh told FrontPageMag’s Jamie Glazov. “There simply was no response. Nothing.”
A week later, ABC hosted LFF co-founder Murty and several other conservative operatives at an advance screening of The Path to 9/11. (While ABC provided 900 DVDs of the film to conservatives, Clinton administration officials and objective reviewers from mainstream outlets were denied them.) Murty returned with a glowing review for FrontPageMag that emphasized the film’s partisan nature. “‘The Path to 9/11’ is one of the best, most intelligent, most pro-American miniseries I’ve ever seen on TV, and conservatives should support it and promote it as vigorously as possible,” Murty wrote. As a result of the special access granted by ABC, Murty’s article was the first published review of The Path to 9/11, preceding those by the New York Times and LA Times by more than a week.
Blumenthal’s illegal essay was published at “The Huffington Post,” a far-left website operating on an unauthorized sector of the Internet. As a result, ABC-Disney-Rove has asked President Bush for authority to shut down all unauthorized and illegal websites and web “logs,” including that of Dave Johnson of Seeing the Forest, who on Friday provided an illegal link to an April 2, 2000 Washington Post article detailing Richard Clarke’s counterterrorism initiatives prior to the millenium:
As the national coordinator for infrastructure protection and counterterrorism, Clarke has presided over a huge increase in counterterrorism budgets over the past five years to meet a wide array of new—and some would argue, still hypothetical—challenges, such as cyber warfare or chemical or biological attacks in New York or Washington. Last month, the administration submitted an $11.1 billion request to Congress to strengthen “domestic preparedness” against a terrorist attack. In the meantime, by contrast, security assistance to the former Soviet Union to tackle proliferation problems has been stuck in the region of $800 million a year.
“In America, there is a morbid fascination with greater-than-life technological threats, which you don’t see in other countries,” says Ehud Sprinzak, a terrorism expert at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. “Clarke has an ax to grind. It makes him big. If nobody talked about catastrophic terrorism, what would people like Dick Clarke be doing?”
Such talk irritates national security adviser Samuel R. “Sandy” Berger, Clarke’s direct supervisor, who insists that the threat of large-scale terrorist attacks on U.S. soil is “a reality, not a perception.” “We would be irresponsible if we did not take this seriously,” he says. “I hope that in 10 years’ time, they will say we did too much, not too little.”
Clarke’s warnings about America’s vulnerability to new kinds of terrorist attack have found a receptive ear in Clinton. With little fanfare, the president has begun to articulate a new national security doctrine in which terrorists and other “enemies of the nation-state” are coming to occupy the position once filled by a monolithic communist superpower. In January, he departed from the prepared text of his State of the Union address to predict that terrorists and organized criminals “with increasing access to ever more sophisticated chemical and biological weapons” will pose “the major security threat” to the United States in 10 to 20 years.
Secretary Horowitz pointed out that citation of the Washington Post article on Richard Clarke violates Executive Order 13414, which amended Executive Order 13233 and is usually referred to in official Washington as the “Order for the Disposal of Inconvenient Information about Past Presidents.” “The article itself should never have been available in the Internets archives,” said Horowitz. “The fact that an illegal website, operating on a pirate Internet frequency, can reproduce an article that should have been eliminated from the public record constitutes one of the gravest and most brazen and damaging governmental attacks on the civil liberties of ordinary Americans since 9/11.”
On Sunday, in response to Blumenthal, Secretary Horowitz insisted that he has no connection to the creators of “The Path to 9/11.”
This is just one of many of attempts by the left to create a right-wing caricature they can attack. Apparently the real David Horowitz—a free speech liberal, a supporter of artistic freedom in Hollywood and academic freedom in the university—is too much of a challenge for their feeble minds to handle.
“It just so happens that I’ve spent the last two years telling the truth about how the Left undermined national security before 9/11,” Secretary Horowitz said today upon re-posting his March 2004 essay on the subject. “The fact that I now have independent factual corroboration of my work, from a wholly independent and completely factual source which I’ve never even heard of and has no connection to me whatsoever, is apparently too much of a challenge for liberals’ feeble minds.” Thoughtfully stroking his goatee, Secretary Horowitz added, “Their feeble, feeble minds. Bwah hah hah hah hah hah hah! Bwah hah hah hah hah hah hah hah hah.”
A spokesman for the David Horowitz Freedom Center added that while citation of the April 2000 Washington Post article on Clarke is a felony violation of the Inconvenient Information Disposal Order and the Swift Boat Act, the article itself should have been sent to Minitrue for revision under the Richard Clarke Unperson Order of 2004, which forbids all references to Clarke’s counterterrorism activities prior to 2001.
“The Path to 9/11” concludes this evening on ABC-Disney-Rove. At the conclusion of this factual docudrama, which has no connection to the work of David Horowitz other than agreeing with it in great detail, there will be a two-minute period during which citizens are encouraged to express their feelings about Democrats’ history of incompetence and malfeasance in matters of national security.
Saturday, September 09, 2006
Special weekend guest blogger
This weekend, for example, you will purchase a copy of Michael’s new book, What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts? And this afternoon, you will watch Penn State defeat Notre Dame, 19-17.
Remember, my friends, future events such as these will affect you in the future!
Friday, September 08, 2006
ABF Friday: Blame America First edition!
While everyone else in the liberal blogosphere is focused on the world-historical shenanigans of ABC-Disney-Rove’s fictionalized docudrama, The Path to 9/11: Clinton Did It (original title: A Million Little Pieces of the Democrats’ Plan to Undermine America), I figure that somebody around here ought to be paying attention to the Old Media, namely, books.
So it is in the spirit of bookselling hucksterism that I bring you the new fall line for Outer Wingnuttia, courtesy of Dinesh D’Souza:
In THE ENEMY AT HOME, bestselling author Dinesh D’Souza makes the startling claim that the 9/11 attacks and other terrorist acts around the world can be directly traced to the ideas and attitudes perpetrated by America’s cultural left.
D’Souza shows that liberals—people like Hillary Clinton, Ted Kennedy, Barney Frank, Bill Moyers, and Michael Moore—are responsible for fostering a culture that angers and repulses not just Muslim countries but also traditional and religious societies around the world. Their outspoken opposition to American foreign policy—including the way the Bush administration is conducting the war on terror—contributes to the growing hostility, encouraging people both at home and abroad to blame America for the problems of the world. He argues that it is not our exercise of freedom that enrages our enemies, but our abuse of that freedom—from the sexual liberty of women to the support of gay marriage, birth control, and no-fault divorce, to the aggressive exportation of our vulgar, licentious popular culture.
The cultural wars at home and the global war on terror are usually viewed as separate problems. In this groundbreaking book, D’Souza shows that they are one and the same. It is only by curtailing the left’s attacks on religion, family, and traditional values that we can persuade moderate Muslims and others around the world to cooperate with us and begin to shun the extremists in their own countries.
No, dear friends, this is not one of my parody posts.
According to D’Souza, 9/11 was brought to you by people legitimately outraged by the sexual liberty of women, gay marriage, birth control, and no-fault divorce. Not to mention Bill Moyers. For who can forget Osama bin Laden’s searing videotape of fall 2001, in which he speaks of “eighty years” of Arab “humiliation and disgrace,” calls for the restoration of the Caliphate, and condemns the United States for “no-fault divorce” and its impact on the traditional family? “Your Barney Frank has always repelled me,” added bin Laden in the October 2004 tape that is widely credited with boosting George Bush’s re-election campaign. “I was most pleased when your Dick Armey called him ‘Barney Fag,’ and I urge your homosexuals to stop abusing the freedom to choose their life partners. Also, your Michael Moore is considerably overweight.”
D’Souza, you’ll recall, began his post-Dartmouth Review career as a public intellectual in 1984 with a hagiography of Jerry Falwell, entitled Falwell: Before the Millenium. That’s the book in which D’Souza writes, “listening to Falwell speak, one gets a sense that something is right about America, after all.” The Enemy at Home, far from advancing a “startling claim,” is just more of the same old same old: Falwell’s once-notorious post-9/11 remarks in book form.
I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America. I point the finger in their face and say “you helped this happen.”
“All right, Michael,” you say, “you’ve gone after D’Souza before, haven’t you?”
Why, yes, I have. Ten years ago I published a review of The End of Racism, the book in which D’Souza dilates on the “civilizational differences” between blacks and whites, poses the searching question, “what do blacks as a group owe America for the abolition of slavery?” and argues that “the American slave was treated like property, which is to say, pretty well.” I ended that review by saying, “As I contemplate The End of Racism, I await the requisite soul-searching on the Right.” My old pal Mark Bauerlein dismissively replied to this sentence, in his oft-cited review of one of my books, by calling it “piously contemplative.” Bauerlein said nothing about the actual D’Souza volume that gave rise to my pious moment, however, and in the intervening years I haven’t seen any other conservatives taking their distance from D’Souza. So I suppose you could say that I’m still waiting for that soul-searching, even though the decade hand on my watch has moved and I’m beginning to think that the conservative repudiation of D’Souza might never show up at all, and you know, it’s getting kind of cold out here.
“Yes, yes, Michael, we know. You and D’Souza go way back, blah blah blah. But he’s a marginal figure at best, just one of the Coulteresque figures in those crazy ‘culture wars’ that only a handful of talking heads and campus blowhards care about. The American mainstream doesn’t go for this kind of thing—really, most Americans are in the vital center, and people like you should stop worrying about the radical fringe and help us restore civility to public discourse along with Katie Couric and Rush Limbaugh. After all, who publishes Dinesh D’Souza anymore? Regnery, right? Or maybe Thomas Nelson, the home of Michael Savage and other obscure Christian authors?”
Well, actually, no, you increasingly annoying imaginary interlocutor. Falwell: Before the Millenium was published by Regnery, that much is true, as was D’Souza’s 2002 tome, What’s So Great About America? (Answer: not teh gays and loose women!) But The Enemy at Home was published by Random House.
And that probably explains why D’Souza had to drop his working title, Al-Qaeda Was Right.
Wednesday, September 06, 2006
Theory Tuesday V (part two)
Welcome to Raymond Williams’s “Base and Superstructure 2: Theorize Harder,” the sequel!
The sections on totality and hegemony take the essay to the Next Level, at which we’re dealing not just with how productive forces do or don’t influence the world of art and ideas, but with the question of how to conceptualize Marxist cultural theory in toto. In only eight paragraphs, Williams covers an astonishing amount of ground, so I’m going to go over it in super slo-mo.
The idea of “totality” remains every bit as vexed today as it was in 1973, if not more so. As Fredric Jameson was wont to complain, by the 1990s, “totalizing” was commonly used as a term for All Bad Things Theoretical, as when people would say (and they said it often) that they did not want to produce any “totalizing”account of a cultural phenomenon or historical period. In the gestural politics of the time, Jameson noted (and he was largely right about this), “totalizing” meant something like “monocausal” or “simplistic”or “really bad straitjacket thinking that reduces lots of different stuff to just one thing, man.” And it was uttered with the same disdain with which people used the term “linear” (as in, “that’s an especially egregious example of linear, totalizing thinking”)—a habit that got some humanists in trouble in the early 1990s when they glommed onto chaos theory in the belief that nonlinear differential equations must be more nuanced and generally cooler than linear differential equations. So, then, if you were called “totalizing Marxist” back in the day, you were being insulted. Jameson, meanwhile, insisted that the term “totalization,” at least in the work of Sartre, referred to a mode of analysis—a mode of analysis without which, like T. S. Eliot on Margate Sands, you can connect nothing with nothing.
That’s basically what Williams says here, harking back to Jameson’s forebear, Georg Lukacs. He opens the section like so:
Now the language of totality has become common, and it is indeed in many ways more acceptable than the notion of base and superstructure. But with one very important reservation. It is very easy for the notion of totality to empty of its essential content the original Marxist proposition. For if we come to say that society is composed of a large number of social practices which form a concrete social whole, and if we give to each practice a certain specific recognition, adding only that they interact, relate and combine in very complicated ways, we are at one level much more obviously talking about reality, but we are at another level withdrawing from the claim that there is any process of determination. And this I, for one, would be very unwilling to do.
And that’s why, to answer Bill Benzon in yesterday’s comments (comment 18), we don’t junk the Marxist apparatus altogether—at least if we’re Raymond Williams. (I’ll say more about this later.) Not just anything goes with anything; as Stuart Hall would insist in the ensuing decade and a half, there is a vast difference between saying there is no necessary correspondence among the various facets and practices of a society (against those reductive Marxists) and saying that there is necessarily no correspondence among them. A society takes a certain shape and a certain character, and though this may be exceedingly complex and conflicted, it is not random. “Indeed,” Williams adds,
the key question to ask about any notion of totality in cultural theory is this: whether the notion of totality includes the notion of intention.
Note that this is the stop where Foucault gets off the bus. The emphasis on “discourse” rather than on “ideology,” and the insistence on regimes of power/knowledge rather than totality: these are moves designed expressly to forestall the question of intention. Why would Foucault want to do that, you ask? Partly because he doesn’t like what he considers the residual humanism at work in Marxism Williams-style. Whereas that’s precisely what I do like about Williams, so go figure.
I could add, and therefore will, that Williams’ passage on the different between “epochal questions” and “historical questions” speaks pretty well to the strengths and weaknesses of Foucault as a theorist of history, even though Foucault’s not a Marxist:
For one thing that is evident in some of the best Marxist cultural analysis is that it is very much more at home in what one might call epochal questions than in what one has to call historical questions. That is to say, it is usually very much better at distinguishing the large features of different epochs of society, as commonly between feudal and bourgeois, than at distinguishing between different phases of bourgeois society, and different moments within these phases: that true historical process which demands a much greater precision and delicacy of analysis than the always striking epochal analysis which is concerned with main lineaments and features.
I don’t mean to pick on Foucault here, because you could make the same charge (as many have done in recent years) with regard to Jameson: I believe it was Gil Rodman who pointed out, à propos of Jameson’s distinction between van Gogh’s shoes and Andy Warhol’s, that you can do a pretty convincing compare-and-contrast between modernism and postmodernism if you simply skip over roughly a hundred years of grainy details. But the point remains that Foucauldian history does better with epochs than with historical processes. Foucault did great work on specific institutions and their histories—from asylums to prisons to the sciences of population management—but if you go to his work looking for an account of why and how things change (whether prisons or sexualities), or why episteme X was superseded by episteme Y, you are going to come away frustrated. Sure, you may be able to forestall that sense of frustration by telling yourself “power produces resistance” over and over, but that’s about it. And don’t go to his work looking for an account of “totality.” Just don’t.
Now for hegemony. This part, my friends, will be on the final.
Here’s most of the opening paragraph of the section, and I suggest you tattoo it onto your forearms for ease of reference:
It is Gramsci’s great contribution to have emphasized hegemony, and also to have understood it at a depth which is, I think, rare. For hegemony supposes the existence of something which is truly total, which is not merely secondary or superstructural, like the weak sense of ideology, but which is lived at such a depth, which saturates the society to such an extent, and which, as Gramsci put it, even constitutes the substance and limit of common sense for most people under its sway, that it corresponds to the reality of social experience very much more clearly than any notions derived from the formula of base and superstructure. For if ideology were merely some abstract, imposed set of notions, if our social and political and cultural ideas and assumptions and habits were merely the result of specific manipulation, or a kind of overt training which might be simply ended or withdrawn, then the society would be very much easier to move and to change than in practice it has ever been or is.
I apologize for all the italics. I’m not usually so indulgent. But, you know, I really want to emphasize this point, so I got all emphatic about it. A generation later, people still talk about ideology and hegemony this way, as if, once the blue pill is consumed, they will cast off the veil of illusion and discover at last the Real Nature of the World Around Us. And I’m not making the Matrix reference to be “hip” and “with-it” and “teh r0xx0r,” either. The first Neo-Morpheus scene is precisely a staging of the notion of ideology against which Williams is arguing:
Morpheus: Let me tell you why you’re here. You’re here because you know something. What you know you can’t explain, but you feel it. You’ve felt it your entire life, that there’s something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is, but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad. It is this feeling that has brought you to me. Do you know what I’m talking about?
Neo: The Matrix.
Morpheus: Do you want to know what it is?
Morpheus: The Matrix is everywhere. It is all around us. Even now, in this very room. You can see it when you look out your window or when you turn on your television. You can feel it when you go to work… when you go to church… when you pay your taxes. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.
Neo: What truth?
Morpheus: That you are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else you were born into bondage. Into a prison that you cannot taste or see or touch. A prison for your mind.
But you don’t necessarily avoid the Matrix-scenario simply by substituting the word “hegemony” for “ideology.” For “there are times,” Williams writes, “when I hear discussions of hegemony and feel that it too, as a concept, is being dragged back to the relatively simple, uniform and static nation which ‘superstructure’ in ordinary use had become.” As Morpheus would say, I know exactly what Williams means. This is, in a nutshell, my complaint about the kind of left media theory one finds in Chomsky and Herman’s Manufacturing Consent and its many offshoots: on those accounts, the people are blinded from the truth by a constant ideological onslaught from Commercial Media, a prison for their minds. Remove the Commercial Media, tell people the truth, and the scales will fall from their eyes.
(Remember last month, when I was arguing against Ed Herman’s claim that “on some issues, like “free trade,” and the merits of overseas military ventures [except in the heat of battle and under a furious elite propaganda barrage], the “radical left” is far closer to mainstream opinion than is the “decent left,” and it is listened to on those issues by ordinary citizens when they can be reached”? This is why. The argument that The People line up with the radical left “naturally” and are diverted from their true interests only by a furious elite propaganda barrage is not only bad politics; it’s bad theory, the kind that some leftists fall back on to explain to themselves why their followers are so few.)
Furthermore, hegemony doesn’t sit on your chest and tell you what to think; it merely seeks to set the bounds of the thinkable—and this, again, is where Williams’ insistence on the meaning of “determination” as “setting limits, exerting pressures” pays off.
Williams underscores the point about the substantiality of the social two pages later, and this time I suggest you should also hear in his words an implicit rebuke to people who think that you’ve pointed out the “socially constructed” nature of X, you’ve all but toppled X forever:
The processes of education; the processes of a much wider social training within institutions like the family; the practical definitions and organization of work; the selective tradition at an intellectual and theoretical level: all these forces are involved in a continual making and remaking of an effective dominant culture, and on them, as experienced, as built into our living, its reality depends. If what we learn there were merely an imposed ideology, or if it were only the isolable meanings and practices of the ruling class, or of a section of the ruling class, which gets imposed on others, occupying merely the top of our minds, it would be—and one would be glad—a very much easier thing to overthrow.
My advice, folks, is to let this point sink in.
But wait! Lest you begin to worry that Williams is turning into the Voice of Quietism here, there is still hope—precisely because hegemony is so complex. As we used to say at the University of Illinois’ Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory,
Roses are red,
Violets are blue,
Hegemony is leaky
And so are you.
Hegemony has to be maintained and patched up by actual people and institutions with determinate intentions, and it’s hard, hard work: “it is continually active and adjusting,” as Williams notes, partly because it’s got so much unruly stuff to deal with, some of which it has to try to incorporate:
Thus we have to recognize the alternative meanings and values, the alternative opinions and attitudes, even some alternative senses of the world, which can be accommodated and tolerated within a particular effective and dominant culture. This has been much underemphasized in our notions of a superstructure, and even in some notions of hegemony.
And quite apart from the “alternative” (lest you think that “alternative” culture and politics is your only alternative), there is the “oppositional”; whereas the merely alternative modes of thought “do not in practice go beyond the limits of the central effective and dominant definitions,” and can therefore be accommodated or tolerated, the oppositional poses a serious challenge to the way things are:
There is clearly something that we can call alternative to the effective dominant culture, and there is something else that we can call oppositional, in a true sense. The degree of existence of these alternative and oppositional forms is itself a matter of constant historical variation in real circumstances. In certain societies it is possible to find areas of social life in which quite real alternatives are at least left alone. (If they are made available, of course, they are part of the corporate organization.) [Note here that Williams does not mean that they become part of a “corporation”; he means they are incorporated into the hegemonic formation somehow.] The existence of the possibility of opposition, and of its articulation, its degree of openness, and so on, again depends on very precise social and political forces. The facts of alternative and oppositional forms of social life and culture, in relation to the effective and dominant culture, have then to be recognized as subject to historical variation, and as having sources which are very significant as a fact about the dominant culture itself.
OK, I’ll stop here, with yet another suggestive insistence on historical specificity and variation.
But at this point you should be asking me, “Michael! You disposed of all of Russian formalism in one post, all of structuralism in another, and did an intro to deconstruction in yet another. How is it that it takes you three long posts to get through just one of Raymond Williams’s essays?”
Because this essay is really, really rich, that’s why. How rich? Very rich. It loads-every-rift-with-ore rich. And now you know why I put off blogging about it for thirteen months.
Tune in next Tuesday for the thrilling finale!
Yet another interlude
While you’re breathlessly waiting for Theory Tuesday (Wednesday edition) V (part two), this dispatch from the Tehran office of the David Horowitz Freedom and Savings Center:
Iran head wants liberal teachers ousted
By NASSER KARIMI
Associated Press Writer
TEHRAN, Iran (AP)—Iran’s hard-line president urged students Tuesday to push for a purge of liberal and secular university teachers, another sign of his determination to strengthen Islamic fundamentalism in the country. . . .
Speaking to a group of students Tuesday, Ahmadinejad called on them to pressure his administration to keep driving out moderate instructors, a process that began earlier this year.
Dozens of liberal university professors and teachers were sent into retirement this year after Ahmadinejad’s administration, sparking strong protests from students, named the first cleric to head Tehran University.
The country’s oldest institution of higher education remains home to dozens more professors and instructors who outspokenly oppose policies that restrict freedom of expression.
“Today, students should shout at the president and ask why liberal and secular university lecturers are present in the universities,” the official Islamic Republic News Agency quoted Ahmadinejad as saying during a meeting with students.
Well, the man certainly doesn’t keep up with WingNut Daily, does he? Here in the U.S. of A., we already know why liberal and secular university lecturers are present in the universities. Because we got tenure and then closed the door behind us! Bwah hah hah hah hah hah hah hah!
Ahmadinejad’s new book, The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Professors in Iran, is now available for a low low price at FrontPage.com, along with his groundbreaking study, Unholy Alliance: Radical Islam and the American Right.
Oh, and speaking of books! It occurs to me that I’m not doing enough to promote my new one. So I’ve added another fabulous dust-jacket blurb to my right sidebar. Hope you like it! (9/9: I took it back down. It wasn’t moving books fast enough.)