Wednesday, October 21, 2009
Politics of reviews
Last fall I agreed to review a book on the basis of its title. It was something about why we should care about the humanities or why the humanities should care about us, I think. Anyway, I read it last November and was surprised to find that it also had a great deal to say about science:
We have nature and only nature. Within this nature we have differentiation in the way that living organisms perpetuate themselves. If we diagrammed this as a series of sets, nature would be the largest circle and within this circle we would have the circle of the animal kingdom (all living life from microbes to Homo sapiens sapiens), and within this smaller circle we would have mammals, and within the circle of mammals we would have humankind. All of these circles are included within the larger set: nature. Within this large set of living nature all living organisms manifest different ways of maintaining their existence (reproducing themselves) over time both individually and as a species. This is to say that the biological self is formed within the social that is a part of this larger set we identify as nature. This is what makes us unique and individual (social beings) as well as what makes us a complete set as individual members that form the same species.
Why talk about all of this? Much of the theoretical formulation of the self fashionable in the humanities today is devoid of a social materialist (historical) purview; many believe that the motor for historical shift is an abstracted movement from one idea to the next; others believe that a performative self can resist oppressive hegemonic master narratives. Rather, the human (higher-minded) self is a self as formed in a society that is itself formed in history, which has been in recent times formed by the class struggle. So even before the self is ethnic or gendered, it is formed in relation to the class struggle (that has guaranteed rights and laws opposite to the interests of a ruling class) within the framework of the modern nation-state. Thus, to understand today’s self is to subordinate gender, race, sexuality and ethnicity to an understanding of it as formed and developed within a capitalist society.
The book proceeds to praise Alan Sokal for revealing “just how reactionary so-called Left theory had become” and how “academic theory had rendered meaningless any real knowledge of the real world that might lead to real change.” And then it offers an innovative proposition or two about the history of science:
Leonardo da Vinci’s helicopter or submarine were conceived of as potentially present but not yet realizable because of the lack of technology; following Newton’s scientific explanation of what gravity is, da Vinci saw very clearly that these things could be realized, could be created and produced; at the same time he was extremely aware of the fact that as a subject situated in a specific time and place, he couldn’t make actual a helicopter or submarine; the materials, the knowledge, and the technology present in his society were insufficiently developed for the actualizing of an object that could defy gravity.
Suffice it to say that I had never come across such a book in my life. And there was more! There was a discussion of Edward Said in which I learned that (a) “having rejected Marx as an intellectual guide for his political activity, Said was blind to the realities of the Middle East. He didn’t see, for example, that for over half a century the Middle East has been a powder keg ready to explode precisely because the Palestinian question was never properly solved by imperialism” and (b) “Said’s constructivist and relativist position vis-à-vis reality is irrational and reactionary. . . . [S]uch an approach not only eliminates all the inconveniences of the Marxist analysis of political and historical situation, but also fails to account fully for the concrete case of the creation of, say, the state of Israel on the basis of the expulsion of the Palestinians.” Why, there was even a discussion of my very favorite topic of late, cultural studies:
The study of cultural phenomena began largely in Great Britain under the impulse of Raymond Williams and E. P. Thompson. In their studies of working-class youth populations and the analysis of, for example, the mugging phenomenon, they identified sites of subcultural resistance to the adult- and bourgeois-operated mainstream society. Of course, to search for a political potential of resistance and revolution in subcultural groups, as any perfunctory check of the enormous amount of evidence available readily shows, there is absolutely no indication to suggest that a subculture has the potential to alter social reality in a revolutionary fashion. In fact, the opposite has been usually true. For all its radical posturing and anarchic fanfare, youth subcultures have never broken with a capitalist outlook and have been readily turned into massive consumers of goods and services produced within the confines of the capitalist mode of production—music, clothes, Italian Lambrettas, hair products, and so on.
Take that, Raymond Williams and E. P. Thompson! Though, to be fair, the book also chastises “Williams, Hebdige, Hull, Gilroy, for example” for their “mysticizing of working class and racially disenfranchised groups.”
How, pray tell, does one review such a book? I did not know. So I made something up. The result is now available in the latest issue of The Review of Politics, available at dead-tree locations near you. But it was a challenge, I’ll admit that. What would you have done?