Sunday, September 14, 2014

Edward Said's Secular Humanist Prophecy Still Rings True


Sut Jhally's video of Said's lecture refuting Samuel Huntington's thesis continues to remain relevant eighteen years after its production.  It's worthwhile to also post the transcript, in case the video link becomes outdated or corrupt.
What remains especially impressive for me is the balance Said injects in regards to notions of textual history and narrative.  Said was by profession a specialist in comparative literature, one of the havens of post-structural and postmodern theory that equivocates all human occurrences down to a distilled notion of 'ideologically opposed narratives'.  Chomsky's discussion here in an interview says it much better than I can, arguing that these alleged 'theories' are merely "truisms hidden in polysyllables".


I'm also going to provide the link to Alan Sokal's NYU page dedicated to the spoof of cultural theory.  Here is a quote from the article where he admitted to his classic experiment in submitting complete nonsense to an academic journal that surprisingly printed the article:
Social Text's acceptance of my article exemplifies the intellectual arrogance of Theory -- meaning postmodernist literary theory -- carried to its logical extreme. No wonder they didn't bother to consult a physicist. If all is discourse and ``text'', then knowledge of the real world is superfluous; even physics becomes just another branch of Cultural Studies. If, moreover, all is rhetoric and ``language games'', then internal logical consistency is superfluous too: a patina of theoretical sophistication serves equally well. Incomprehensibility becomes a virtue; allusions, metaphors and puns substitute for evidence and logic. My own article is, if anything, an extremely modest example of this well-established genre.Politically, I'm angered because most (though not all) of this silliness is emanating from the self-proclaimed Left. We're witnessing here a profound historical volte-face. For most of the past two centuries, the Left has been identified with science and against obscurantism; we have believed that rational thought and the fearless analysis of objective reality (both natural and social) are incisive tools for combating the mystifications promoted by the powerful -- not to mention being desirable human ends in their own right. The recent turn of many ``progressive'' or ``leftist'' academic humanists and social scientists toward one or another form of epistemic relativism betrays this worthy heritage and undermines the already fragile prospects for progressive social critique. Theorizing about ``the social construction of reality'' won't help us find an effective treatment for AIDS or devise strategies for preventing global warming. Nor can we combat false ideas in history, sociology, economics and politics if we reject the notions of truth and falsity.
The results of my little experiment demonstrate, at the very least, that some fashionable sectors of the American academic Left have been getting intellectually lazy. The editors of Social Text liked my article because they liked its conclusion: that ``the content and methodology of postmodern science provide powerful intellectual support for the progressive political project.'' They apparently felt no need to analyze the quality of the evidence, the cogency of the arguments, or even the relevance of the arguments to the purported conclusion. 
This discussion of praxis is particularly relevant to my scholarly pursuits because, in regards to the topic of this blog, it is quite tenable to reduce my subject matter to typical solipsisms of the 'theoretical' type.  I've also encountered this issue in my own film making work, especially a documentary I produced about New England's role in the slave trade.  In that case, popular notions about colonial history as opposed to black history came into conflict.  Throughout the film, I tried to emphasize a sort of notion about texts that provided the basis of my scholarship, providing sequences where African memoirs and testimony were used to illustrate points about prominent white figures in the colonial narratives, leaving the audience themselves to make a judgement.
So what exactly is the moral or academic conclusion to be derived from understanding the similarities and differences between Palestinian and Israeli national cinemas?
In the time I have been reviewing these films, I have seen a great deal of nuance and even similarities in both cinemas.  Israeli and Palestinian film makers are both critical of the governments of their respective polities.  Perhaps the most striking moment of this can be seen in PARADISE NOW, where the PLO and Hamas are equivocated as equally bureaucratic and stagnant, as compared with the works of Udi Aloni, where he provides a critique of morality in the Israeli government as a Jewish polity.  In the closing of his film FORGIVENESS, a film that continues to stick with me almost a year after I had viewed it, David is anointed in oil according to Jewish tradition while haunted by visions of an Arab child he shot and killed on patrol.  It is this set of 'narratives' that provide not the conclusion but the thesis and anti-thesis of an ongoing dialogue that should not be merely a spectacle or theoretical debate.
For instance, does the fact Sokal cites Paolo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Chomsky's Language and Responsibility, and Louis Althusser's writings render a certain judgement on the texts themselves as academic resources?  Said, for example, was quite apt to argue his case in Orientalism utilizing both Gramsci's writing on culture while still making a cogent argument in opposition to racism and cultural prejudices.  But likewise, even Foucault's work on bio-politics provides a valid and interesting critique of neo-liberal capitalism.
Recently I was reading a volume on Frantz Fanon, with a particular essay dedicated to the issue of homophobia and Fanon's political program.  The author argues on the first page that, according to Fanon's logic, his status as a gay white male attracted to African men would problematize his existence.  Thus follows several pages trying to 'theorize' about Fanon's homophobia, including conjectures questioning Fanon's sex life, his psychological framework, and many other topics to that effect.
I would argue that this type of dialogue is inherently nonsense, a set of fantastic wish-thinkings masked in polysyllables.  It is quite easy to effectively reason that, as someone who was both a Partisan against the Vichy government and a proponent of anti-colonial struggles, Fanon would have been at least somewhat familiar with the Marxist-Leninist program and its vilification of same-sex eros as a form of bourgeois perversion and latent Fascist tendencies, derived from the rather absurd reasoning that, because Ernst Rohm had been a man who sleeps with men (and boys, in Rohm's case), all homosexuals are inherently corrupt.  Fanon's scorn towards homosexuality and his equation of same-sex eros and colonial exploitation is very much akin to the Stalinist logic, identifying texts like Black Skin, White Mask and Wretched of the Earth with the time and place that produced them.
This sort of behavior is not limited to Fanon.  One need only recall the differences in ideology between Malcolm X and Alex Haley that resulted in the AUTOBIOGRAPHY as a text reflecting not what were the absolute views of Malcolm X but the ones Haley as a Republican-voting black Naval veteran felt were tenable to the public, leaving out passages that referred to troubled inter-ethnic dialogues between American Jews and African Americans as well as statements of solidarity with Palestinians in the face of Zionism.  These removed sections are, to use a metaphor from art, 'negative spaces' that reflect not on Malcolm X's ideology but Haley's own prerogatives and prejudices as a writer and amanuensis for his subject.  The recognition of these negative spaces includes within their acknowledgment a tacit set of conclusions and judgements, here the disparity between two ideologically different black men.  The adjudication of this contrast is provided by the very definition of what an amanuensis should do and, more importantly, not do.  By definition, an amanuensis is one who takes dictation.  In this capacity, Haley of course should be granted a certain amount of exception for correcting grammar and sentence structures to communicate a message, but not to fundamentally reverse the meaning and impact of his subject's words and views.  The effort to ideologically position Malcolm X as a figure that more than anything else marks the parameters of liberation that the established order will allow is something still being debated, especially in the wake of Manning Marable's recent biography of the late civil rights leader.  His efforts to connect Malcolm with the ascendancy of Barrack Obama as the first African-American President and the confrontation between the American military project and Islamic culture is yet another example of such a trend.
In closing, there are indeed 'narratives' that subvert the status quo and re-orient the discussion of major humanities topics.  Howard Zinn's work is one such example, a body of scholarship derived from the otherwise unheard voices of those who opposed the tide in various epochs of American expansionism, just as was Said's utility of comparative literature.
What is especially problematic about this notion within the academy of equivocation in morality and ethics is the objective conclusion, that challenging the status quo is illegitimate.  Consider the developing case of Steven Salaita, (yet another) instance of a university administration canceling a tenure appointment for invoking the name of justice for Palestinians.  CounterPunch provides an amazing summary of this episode, including a thorough rebuke of the notion of 'civility' as a deciding factor in whether an academic should be hired.   Here is a video of Salaita's first public comments since the scandal began.
If genuine human rights and abuses of them are reduced to merely 'narratives in conflict', meaning the notion of passionate invocation in debate is a sign of instability, there are indeed many more issues to confront than just a professor at Urbana-Champaign.  This not only negates the First Amendment protections on free speech, it turns academic freedom into a mere slogan without true content.
This sort of behavior can be seen especially in the word-games played by far Right Wing political theorists.  Instead of anti-abortion, one is really 'pro-life'.  School integration becomes 'forced busing', the teaching of Creationism, a classic precursor to race theory, becomes 'equal time', and a homophobe becomes a 'defendant of marriage'.
With such clear and present dangers to the democratic order, it is imperative to recognize that academic tenure and its freedoms must be preserved, despite the neo-liberal agenda to adjunct the entire faculty of a university and effectively transform higher education into a corporation.  The Salaita case, just as in the episode between Norman Finkelstein and DePaul University in Chicago a decade ago, are clear markers of this cultural trend within university and college administrations.  I hope to return to the topic periodically as it develops.

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