Monday, February 04, 2008

La trahison des clercs

In the course of the bonfire of decencies that has been the American political process in recent years, we were famously informed that "facts on the ground don't matter". And it has been the bewildered complaint of the derailed progressive forces that this attitude is not only accepted but actively practiced by increasing proportions of the mainstream media. Facts are not reported, controversies are - there are only conflicting interpretations, conflicting languages that are cited, and increasingly few attempts are made to evaluate these often totally absurd claims against reality. No doubt this is largely an economic phenomenon: the modern media is very tightly integrated to corporate structures, to these gigantic, unimaginable concentrations of wealth and power - which of course will inevitably corrupt any intellectual enterprise. But I think the attack has been so deadly because it has been two pronged all the while, and the other thrust has come from the back: the humanities have now been dominated for decades by a very debased form of postmodernity that indeed does replace the words like "facts" and "reality" within quotation marks having no legitimate meaning. In the current academic folk religion in the literature and media departments reality has no substance and fundamentally only power is the meaningful settler of any disputes. Can we then blame the poor journalists for their education?

Now of course we know that nothing that Derrida, Kristeva, Foucault and other captains of the army of unalterable law ever wrote challenged the physical reality in any way. Findings of physics, the laws of mathematics are perfectly, even religiously protected by these texts - physical facts remain as objective as ever and reality as real and robust as it has always been. This has been the correct fall back position of most defenders of this complicated web of continental philosophies. The problem is of course that on the ground this is hardly ever even mentioned as of course it would delegate these much trumpeted findings to somewhat more humble level. Facts are as solid and trustworthy as as they have ever been but there are some great complications in formulating them in human language. And it is these intricate complications that the various streams of postmodern thought have helpfully clarified. Of course, they have done this in as unclear and messy language as humanly possible - and in the process whether then intentionally or not hiding the fact that these new insights are hardly very revolutionary at all. (It is no wonder that postmodern thought has so docilely co-existed with the triumph of free market orthodoxy.) Needless to say these complicated philosophical insights have virtually no importance to the mundane every day process of reporting and analysing events.

So, progress is currently bogged down in two front war (and not doing particularly well in either). Just when facts are crucially important, when truth should be spoken to power, we discover that "facts" are irrelevant and "truth" is an oppressive, anti-pluralist concept. Progress itself is seen as a dangerous, hegemonic concept and a direct cause for the calamities of the 20th century - from Kant and Mill you somehow get straight to Auschwitz (as nonsensical as it is to think so). One should not wonder that the chief beneficiary of this collapse of selfconfidence are the modern, atavistic conservative forces supported and created by the blind and self-destructive structures of capital. Of course we are now seeing many signs of waning of the force of this great bundle of theories: scholastism has been quite exhausted by now -the seats of power have been conquered but hardly anything else very meaningful. All that needed to be written and what was intellectually valuable was essentially said already by the late 1970's. What we now have in humanities, three long decades later, seems to be a gigantic cul-de-sac, a huge waste of intellectual energy, the main legacy of which seems to be only the undermining of enlightenment values and all faith in political progress.