Saturday, May 27, 2006

On silent thought

Great little editorial here by Ignacio Ramonet on the role of intellectuals. He mentions, in passing, that Bernard Henri-Levy is "indulg[ing] in exhibitionist self-destructiveness." Yeah, no kidding. The man who is often quoted as France's most important philosopher (and who is therefore understood to be a "French Leftist"), actually writes for a conservative magazine and is often nothing more than an apologist for conservative ideology. Also, his road trip last year, meant to cast him as some kind of new de Toqueville, produced one of the most boring series of articles I've recently read. (It was in the Atlantic Monthly, another stealth conservative magazine, IMHO).

Like so many on the right, BHL fights so hard to un-explain (philosophically distort) the obvious truth that his writing becomes tedious. As Lloyd Benson would say, I knew de Toqueville, and BHL, you're no de Toqueville. Anway, read Ramonet's little piece on public intellectuals and you'll see why we are where we are.

Silent thought

By Ignacio Ramonet

Once again, during the recent revolt against the First Employment Contract, the enthusiasm and dynamism evident on French streets were in marked contrast with the disconcerting silence of French thinkers and writers. The same was true during the November riots in the banlieues. There was a lot of chattering, but few, other than such rare figures as Jean Baudrillard and John Berger, were able to read the events, uncover their deeper significance and suggest what they might portend. With no relevant or encouraging diagnosis forthcoming, society was left in the dark about its symptoms and in danger of succumbing to further crises.

In France an intellectuel is defined as someone who uses a reputation in science, the arts or culture to mobilise public opinion in support of causes that he or she regards as just. In modern states, it has been the role of the intellectual for two centuries to make sense of social trends, illuminating the path towards greater liberty and less alienation.

What the recent crises have demonstrated is how much we miss the analytical intelligence of Pierre Bourdieu, Cornelius Castoriadis and Jacques Derrida, to name three great thinkers no longer with us. A sense of loss has inspired us to examine the current war of ideas. Are there any real thinkers left, or has the media explosion shattered their authority? Why (as if the hatred of fascists and the aversion of the American right were not enough) do such writers as Bernard-Henri Lévy indulge in exhibitionist self-destructiveness? There is a central issue here - the way in which, in publishing and the universities, private interests are enlisting prestigious thinkers as allies in an ideological struggle.

Here are a few thoughts on the subject from some major thinkers in the past. First, Michel Foucault (1): “For a long time, ‘leftwing’ intellectuals spoke out as masters of truth and justice . . . They were heard, or claimed the right to be heard, as representatives of the universal. To be an intellectual was to be, to a degree, the conscience of all. But it is many years since intellectuals were called upon to fulfil this role. Intellectuals became used to operating, not within the universal, the exemplary, the just-and-true-for-all, but in given sectors, in the specific contexts where their own working or living conditions situated them . . . Working in such situations undoubtedly gave them a far more concrete and immediate awareness of struggle. And there they encountered problems that were specific, not universal, and often different from those of the proletariat. I would argue that this brought them closer to the masses, since these were real, material, everyday struggles in the course of which they often encountered, albeit in a different form, the same enemy (the multinationals, the police and legal machines, property speculation) as the urban and rural proletariat. That is what I mean by ‘specific’, as opposed to the ‘universal’, intellectual.”

Then there is Gilles Deleuze on what to do with ideas (2): “A theory is exactly like a toolbox. It must serve some purpose. It must work, and not just for its own sake. If there is no one to use it, starting with the theorist, who thus becomes a practitioner, it is either worthless or its time has not yet come. You do not go back to a theory, you make others and there are always more to be made.”

Pierre Bourdieu (3) proposes a new and radical thinktank: “Many historians have highlighted the role played by thinktanks in the production and imposition of the neoliberal ideology that now rules the world. To counter the work of these expert groups, appointed by our rulers, we need the help of critical networks . . . They should form autonomous intellectual collectives, capable of defining their own objectives and the limits to their agenda and action.

“Groups should start with negative criticism, producing and disseminating tools to defend us against symbolic domination, increasingly backed by the authority of science. Drawing on the strength afforded by their collective skills and authority, such groups can subject the dominant message to logical criticism, targeting its vocabulary, also its arguments. They may subject it to sociological criticism by highlighting the factors influencing the people who produce the dominant message, starting with journalists. They may counter the supposedly scientific claims of experts, particularly in the field of economics.

“The whole structure of critical thought for political purposes needs rebuilding. This cannot be the work of just one great thinker, locked in solitary thought, or the appointed spokesperson of some body, speaking on behalf of all those deprived of the means to speak. On the contrary, intellectual collectives can play an essential role, helping to lay the foundations in society for the collective production of realistic utopias.”

Right: reality-based utopias (i.e., hope and striving for a better future, not some crazy-scheme like gated communities, Disneyland, or Celebration Florida).

I have to say, though, that I've read all of these folks, and, frankly, I also find them tedious (but undeniably pithy). For our think-tanks to work, we have to get back to simpler language and direct engagement rather than engagement filtered through theory. Simple does not mean simplistic. When theorists opt for too much academic language, they opt for disengagement--hence my problems with much of this. Baudrillard, for one, took off his academic masks after 9/11 and wrote some of his most probing works, which also happened to be a culmination of his cultural intuitions of the last 40 years.

We do not need the supposed "authority" of obscure language to inform a progressive future; reality itself provides us with plenty of examples of the failures of the right (and left) to allow us to move ahead. Public polls on heath-care, on clean air and water are the models for this.