Sunday, 22 September 2013

[Guest View] Towards a Better Kind of Kulturkampf -- Rupert Read

A ‘late review’ of Gavin Kitching's 
The Trouble with Theory: The Educational Costs of Postmodernism
Rupert Read

I’m jealous of Gavin Kitching. In 2008, along with the Hutch (and with our guru Wes Sharrock), I published a book with the uncontroversial title There is no Such Thing as a Social Science... That same year, Gavin published his The Trouble With Theory. The two books had much the same target of criticism. They were both Wittgensteinian/Winchian polemics against the madness for ‘theory’ that in one way or another dominates much of the contemporary academy, though Kitching’s target was narrower, in that he focussed primarily on Post-Modernism, which was only one part of our target. (See also my more recent book Wittgenstein Among the Sciences, which broadens that target further still) Our debt to Winch was obvious in our book’s subtitle: In Defence of Peter Winch. Kitching’s is obvious to the initiated in the second paragraph of his Preface: “I believe…that at the heart of postmodernism lies very poor, deeply confused and misbegotten philosophy.” This remark clearly recalls Winch’s epochal criticism of much sociology as “misbegotten epistemology.”

Our book got some very good reviews and reasonable sales, and made a little bit of a splash especially in the sociology world. But the splash that Gavin’s book made would have drowned our’s. For example, he got all over the radio in Australia to talk about his book, something humanities and ‘social science’ academics can usually only dream of doing. So you’ll understand why I’m jealous of him…

His book’s success was richly-deserved. For his aim, described at p.1 of the book, was as follows:

“In this book, I want to: 
  • Show that a certain kind of theorising does active intellectual damage to able young people, and indicate precisely what that damage is and how it occurs; and 
  • provide a kind of manual by which both students and their teachers may be helped to avoid this damage and to do genuinely productive and rewarding intellectual work together.”

Kitching succeeds in these – original – aims, as I will describe momentarily. What The Trouble With Theory does is to take philosophy and use it efficaciously and comprehensibly to undercut the nonsenses and ‘nostrums’ that too often pass as wisdom in the classrooms of (many humanities and ‘social science’ departments in) the universities of the West today. The book is careful not to claim to undercut (for instance) Foucault’s own philosophy, and wisely so: it aims instead at the second- and third- rate readers of that great iconoclastic thinker who dominate the secondary literature and who teach and debase his work. Kitching thus shatters the icons that in practice hold us captive as a culture without kicking against the deeper iconic figures who in some cases actually lie behind them in a state of greater resilience. (He does this by, in an unusual move, treating as his main texts student theses from his university. Substantial excerpts from these form the lengthy Appendices to his book, which the body of the book critically examines.)

And, crucially, Gavin’s book refrains as it does so from the kind of ‘conservative’ snobbery and deliberate-incomprehension that characterises too much of our culture’s criticism of post-modernism (cf. p.xiv of his Preface). Kitching avoids the temptation to produce a book-length Pseuds Corner, and rather seeks and succeeds in practicing interpretive charity; as any true Wittgensteinian must, he gives (or tries to give) the target of his ire the fairest possible crack of the whip. And a key reason for penning The Trouble With Theory was the desire to show that post-modernistic nostrums are not necessary for green or left-wing or ‘progressive’ politics: in fact, the opposite is the case, as Kitching repeatedly and helpfully argues.

Gavin’s book, as Richard King puts it “is about as far from the op-ed spirit as it is possible to be without being boring”. This book, unlike most ‘conservative’ attacks on post-modernism, is a deeply-serious text – that nevertheless aimed for and attained a popular audience. (Did I mention that I’m jealous?)

Nobody’s perfect. The book omits an important figure who I think has actually succeeded in giving meaning to some of the (otherwise) nonsensical talk around ‘social construction’ etc. . I am referring to Ian Hacking. If one wants to understand for instance what someone who says that “Discourse produces the world” might conceivably (be able to) mean (see below), then one needs to read Hacking’s The Social Construction of What?.

And I regret that the book’s take on the Tractatus is less up-to-the-minute in terms of scholarship (what Kitching writes on p.204 of his text notwithstanding) than it might be (I’d--shamelessly--recommend to Gavin my own Beyond the Tractatus Wars) … The Trouble With Theory could use to go New-er, in terms of the Wittgenstein it offers us. At times, Gavin unwittingly assumes as the Tractatus’s doctrine that which is its very target.

I’d also take issue with Gavin’s educational philosophy somewhat. He stresses (on pp.xii-xiii of his Preface) his desire to combine a commitment to a liberal philosophy of education with a commitment to truth. I am sceptical that this is possible, and have laid out why in my paper co-authored with Matt Lavery, "Philosophy is/as the Power of Words" which appears in the edited collection Teaching Philosophy. (Phil Hutchinson & Michael Loughlin's impressive paper "Why Teach Philosophy?"  published in the same collection is also well-worth reading)  The worry in a nut-shell is this: That the goal of ‘liberal education’ is alarmingly compatible with – almost made for – post-modern relativism.

I would argue that the goal of truth must be primary, and that is why I favour an agonistic rather than a liberal model of education. I seek to teach students (the) truth – though without indoctrinating them. I explicitate my non-neutrality, in a way that liberal education lies in not doing. (And in passing let me note that I am worried concomitantly that Kitching is not substantively committed enough to truth in terms of philosophical discourse, in that he appears to endorse Verificationism about it on p.112 of his book. See on this the useful criticisms made by Jim MacKenzie.

Kitching writes on p.xiii of his Preface that the University’s “commitment to a rigorous educational liberalism is being undermined by the pursuit of an over-facile political radicalism / ethical rectitude.” Sometimes: But I would argue that the bigger danger is a quasi-commercial/liberal relativism. . . That strips out the possibility of genuine political radicalism or ethical seriousness altogether.

The emphasis on ‘framing’ that Lavery and I discuss in “Philosophy is/as the Power of Words” in the Teaching Philosophy collection leads into my main point, to which I will devote the remainder of this review. I think that Gavin’s book could actually use to think a little more deeply about the power of language for good and ill, in philosophy and politics. I think that he resists doing so because he is determined (and rightly so) to resist the reification of ‘language’ in too much post-modernism. Silly and influential talk of ‘the prison-house of language’ and the like. But I worry that this obscures from Gavin, ironically, some of what is actually most important in relation to important aspects of his chosen subject-matter.

Take for instance the following remark, from p.24 of his text: “Do abstract social forces rule people? Certainly they do in the prose world of ‘theory’!” And it is this looking-glass world that Kitching aims to critique. And he does so effectively – but at a cost. The cost is that, in wanting to react against the ideas of ‘theory’ (e.g. the power of ‘Language’; abstract ‘social forces’) without reifying ‘language’, he sometimes doesn’t pay enough attention to what gets linguistically constructed in the unseen very first stage of the conjuring trick in which post-modernists engage. So, in the context I have quoted: what most profoundly needs doing, I would suggest, is to interrogate the very idea of ‘social forces’. The first thing we ought to say about that ‘idea’ is: it is a metaphor, and most likely an uncashable one. Potentially a profoundly troubling one, for a Wittgensteinian or Winchian or Lakoffian. For already in the very idea of ‘social forces’ we are, I would submit, assuming in the abstract the possibility of something like a social physics. And, indeed, in other contexts Kitching has subtly argued this point, as in his discussion of the misleading nature of the metaphors employed in orthodox economics; for example see "Practice 4" in his "Scientism in Western Culture". (See also Wittgenstein's discussion of the metaphor of "process" in the employment of the term "mental process" in remark 308 of his Philosophical InvestigationsAnd Hutchinson's discussion of this in his "Thinking and Understanding", chapter 8 of Jolley's Wittgenstein: Key Concepts)  We risk then assuming the validity of the programmatic ambition of ‘social science’. In his keenness to contest the presumptions of ‘theory’, Kitching risks not going quite deep enough in diagnosing the basis of its attraction. I am suggesting that, as Phil Hutchinson, Wes Sharrock and I argued in ...No Such Thing... , that attraction goes right the way back to the attraction of the very idea of ‘social science’ invented by Comte, Durkheim and Marx.

True, in pp.25-7 of his text, Gavin expertly exposes to view the dubious metaphorical structuration of the language of ‘theory’ in relation to Language and its alleged power. Let us spend a moment with part of this exposing-to-view:

“One of the logically inevitable concomitants of a metaphorical conception of theory as a landscape or space filled with a variety of abstract objects is that putting theory to work empirically will consist in large part of describing or characterising the relationships that exist between and among these objects. …[I]t is possible to fill…the space with a kind of metaphorical mist or smoke in which objects…influence, modify, enable, form, render, limit, have a part to play in or make a difference to other objects. …[W]hen deployed in the conceptual space of ‘theory’, the immense richness and variety of English relationship vocabulary can allow for significant degrees of ambiguity, equivocation or (even) self-contradiction. In particular it can allow highly deterministic formulations to be advanced, reiterated, partially withdrawn and qualified, and then reiterated again, often within a single page or even paragraph.”

He then goes on to give examples from his corpus of student dissertations of precisely this happening.  In relation to the remarkable claim made by a student that “In effect discourse produces the world”, for example, he shows how this claim in this context trades on a lack of clarity about what a term like “produce” means (in a context like this).

So far, so excellent. But: Kitching is throwing out the baby with the bathwater if he denies the deep (roots of the) attractions of the language of (post-modernistic etc) ‘theory’, the roots they share with the attractions--the almost ‘natural’ draw of ideas like ‘social forces’--of social theory since its beginnings.

At p.141 of his book, Gavin argues in effect that post-modernism is a form of resentiment, a cult of victimhood that is naturally attractive at a time of worldwide defeat for the Left. I’d agree that the failure of the Left to take advantage even of the devastating failure of capitalism through which we are currently living (see my "Economist-Kings?") is remarkable, tragic, partly explanatory of what Gavin is pointing up here (the attraction of the ideology of post-modernism), and indeed partly explained by it. However, I can’t agree with Gavin that it is wrong (as he says post-modernism does) to paint a version of the bad “in which the vast majority of people are simply its victims, rather than its perpetrators.” The problem is not this: for this is largely true. (We, the 99.9%, are victims of an insane ideology and of brute power-relations that have put it into practice – though I’d agree that we are not “simply” victims; we still have agency.)  The problem is that post-modernism tends to represent ‘Language’ or ‘Power’ as the problem – rather than the rich and their (material and ideological) power.

I disagree deeply with Gavin then when he goes on to claim on p.142 that “I do not think it is necessary to invoke the power of language or discourse or ideology to explain any of the setbacks suffered by Left politics in the last 30 years.” My ‘Green Words Workshop’ site makes clear why I disagree. The power of language (the power of framing, the power of metaphor, the power for instance of what Steven Poole calls ‘unspeak’) is a key part of the explanation which Gavin rightly desires. Look at the ‘conservative’ thinktanks in the U.S.; look at the work and impact of my old mate the dastardly Frank Luntz; look at George Lakoff’s attempt to counter this (an attempt based more deeply in Wittgenstein and Kuhn, I believe, than is usually acknowledged or understood). The hegemonic ideology of (economic) growthism that stunts our efforts to green the world and to make it more equal now (rather than waiting for a bigger pie the day after tomorrow); and the hegemonic ideology of liberalism (as opposed to ecologism): these are two great ramparts that keep our insane economism-dominated society afloat, and ‘growing’ into oblivion.

So, for instance: we need to recover the concept of economics from the disastrous state in which it currently subsists. Economics, etymologically, is about the management of the household.  Now see what my friends over at the Cognitive Policy Works make of this: 

“Our first experiences with the management of resources occur in the home.  We share a finite amount of space that requires harmony and cooperation among family members.  The need for privacy is balanced against the need for community space.  Intuitively the law of supply and demand makes sense because it applies every time we sit down to the dinner table, especially when divvying up slices of pie. // The deep frames that inform this historical concept of economics are the same as the deep frames that inform ecology.  The central message of ‘environmentalism’ is that humanity has not managed the household of our society.  We have soiled the beds we sleep in, poisoned the food we eat, and squandered the resources that our livelihood depends upon.”

This is the germ of an economic call to action: once we succeed in re-conceiving economics. . .

Or: think of the term ‘goods’ (as in ‘consumer-goods’). This is a superb (i.e. disastrous) piece of framing. ‘Consumer goods’ – well, it is obvious that they are good (and by implication, that consumerism is too?) – the word ‘good’ tells us so! Of course, a lot of people nowadays, even so, are less convinced of this. Can more THINGS really make us happy? And what about the damage being done to our planetary life-support system in the process? Perhaps there is a way in which we can start to rethink ‘goods’ themselves that will put their obvious goodness into question. Let me venture the following: We are used to thinking of ‘goods’ as being the same, wherever they are (moved to) spatially. But this is a limited, essentially ‘Newtonian’ conception of them. An out-of-date conception of them. I’d argue that we need to replace the ‘Newtonian’ concept of goods with a broadly ‘Einsteinian’ conception of them, more suited for an ecological age, in order to understand their effects, and thus to understand more fully what they are: we need to think of them as ‘deforming’ the space around them. In Einstein’s conception, space-time is actually curved by masses. We tend to think of ‘goods’ as being ‘produced’, as having come ‘out’ of nature into our world, and then of being moved around that world in order to satisfy wants and needs: but we ought rather to see things that are moved from their original place as (roughly) acquiring additional mass, and more and more deforming the space around them, the further they are moved. That is one way in which we could come properly to index the ecological effect (Think of transport carbon emissions, for instance) of moving goods around. By thinking ‘Relativistically’ of masses in motion as gaining mass and affecting the very space in which they find themselves. ‘Goods’ are less good, to the extent that they do this. To the extent, very roughly, to which they are traded. Goods become bad, in correlation to the extent to which they are taken from the Earth and moved.

And the scare-quotes in the previous paragraph were employed to highlight that the term “produce” as used by economists, manufacturers etc., is in fact another piece of dangerous hegemonic spin: We might counter it by saying, riffing on Ruskin, that there is no production except by life. That only biological growth, not the dead kind feted in Economics, can really produce anything, really yield true wealth. Manufacturing can’t (yet) truly produce anything in the way a plant or a couple can. Manufacturing, roughly, just takes bits of things and bangs them together.

I could go on (and I do, elsewhere) ... I think that the trouble with The Trouble With Theory is that it over-reacts to the wrongness of the postmodernist emphasis on ‘Language’ to such an extent that it risks undercutting the payoff of the very interrogation of language that is central to Wittgenstein’s philosophy; and that payoff – including the critical analysis of ‘common-sense’ propaganda and the recovery or construction of a new saner common-sense--is an essential element of any effort by the Left / greens to recover our world from the dire state that Gavin Kitching is worried about just as much as I am…

Now, it is crucial for me to avoid a possible misunderstanding on the reader’s part at this point. I am certainly not putting forward a global claim that all problems hereabouts, or all political problems, are really framing problems. Far from it! (And neither was/is Lakoff) That kind of over-hasty theory is exactly what Gavin correctly criticises Post-Modernism for: its global theory that all problems are problems of signification (or, in deconstructive versions, of aporia; or, in more ‘politicised’ versions, of ideology). Some problems are framing problems; some problems are political; many are practical, or material, or organisational; some are technical, or technological; some are ethical; some are conceptual; some are epistemic (i.e. to do with the limits to our knowledge (limits which may be less or more superable)); most interesting problems of course tend to be some tricksy combination of some or most of these. Wittgenstein, as Phil Hutchinson has remarked to me, was marvellously obsessed with identifying those problems to which philosophy (properly conceived) could contribute (to the dissolution of). The disaster in Post-Modernism is its easy fantasy that all problems are ultimately philosophical (In Derrida: that metaphysics is inescapable; that there is no such thing as a theory-free ordinary; etc.). The problem I am identifying in Kitching’s work is this: that, in his quite-correct antipathy to this stance, he risks giving up on the pluralism that the situation actually manifests. I.e. Once more: he risks throwing the baby of framing/hegemony/ideology out with the bathwater of Post-Modernist theory. Just because Post-Modernists overdo the significance of ideology etc doesn’t mean that there is no role for that concept. As I have sketched just above, on the contrary: there remains a very important (recast) role for it and for related concepts. And I should like to note here in passing that I have somewhat similar criticisms to make also of Steven Poole’s concept of ‘unspeak’ as I do of Gavin’s closing-down of the space for rhetoric, for (re-)framing. Poole sometimes makes it sound too much as if any reframing is as bad as any other, and that only a language completely drained of rhetoric could be acceptable to his Confucian temperament. That seems to me to be: throwing the baby (of reframing, of metaphor, etc.) out with the bathwater (of spin).

But: I am being hyper-critical now. I want to close by saying that none of my criticisms above should be heard as undermining in the slightest my overall verdict: that this is a really excellent and important book, a book that is basically right, and that is every bit as worth reading now as five years ago when it appeared. Look into it! You’ll be joining very large numbers who have already done so.

If only there were more books like Gavin’s, then the poor state of national intellectual (sic.) debate in the English-speaking world would be rectified. Rather than dire confrontations of elitist ‘conservatives’ with post-modernists, we would have a better kind of culture war. A kind that would begin, as Wittgenstein begins, with the quest for sense. With a struggle for philosophical peace…

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