Wednesday, January 18, 2006

But would you still respect yourself in the morning?

One day while I was in high school my class went to the school library where the librarian told us how important and how much fun it is to read. Later, while the kids walked about the library, mostly mucking about, rather than looking at books, the librarian took each one of us aside one-by-one to sign something that was meant to be a reading contract where we would pledge to read some number of books. When she got to me she noted down my name and asked how many books I would read. I must have not been sure as she suggested a number - five books. I looked at her somewhat surprised and asked, "You mean, per week?" She was completely nonplussed. We had been talking at cross-purposes. She had just been dealing with a string of kids who hardly ever looked in a book - I read voraciously.

This characteristic has pretty much stayed with me so, quite naturally, I became an academic (You mean people will pay me to do this?!?) Even so, I seem to be going through a stage right now of reading more than I had for many, many years. There is a great pile of books in my study through which I am making my way. Some are work-related, some are not and some are close enough to being work-related that I can feel like I am working while I am reading them. Not that, given how much I enjoy my job, I know what 'work' means to the great majority of people.

Right now, I am reading Richard Wolin's The Seduction of Unreason: The Intellectual Romance with Facism from Nietzsche to Postmodernism. Now, given that postmodernism has always seemed to me to be about as attractive and interesting as the fluff that gathers in the navel, I can not claim to be either impartial or informed. Still, I find what Wolin writes to be highly instructive. First of all, there is his careful tracing of the shared anti-democratic, anti-humanist, anti-rationalist currents that flow through the fascism of the 1920's and the postmodernism of the 1980's. Secondly, there is his very pragmatic analysis of postmodernism's claim to be a liberating political viewpoint - the problem with such views being that, rather than freeing anyone, they leave us undefended against the exercise of raw power. On that last point there can be no better reference than Chomsky who has opposed raw power with reason, humanity and a commitment to democracy for many years and more claim to success than any postmodernist that I can think of. Chomsky's article from the Z Papers discussion on Rationality/Science is a good start.

The fascination of a large element of the academic left with postmodernism seems to me to be an example of sublimation in the Freudian sense, rather than the physical I used in the previous post. Although I am not very fond of Freud either, his concept seem quite apposite in this case - by becoming postmodernists the academics can focus their political, moral energy at a point which does not threaten their careers; they can spend their time haranguing 'science' for being totalitarian and oppressive, or claim to undermine the dominant paradigm instead of opposing the oppressive governments with all of the danger that would entail. Of course, the coin has two sides - what is not dangerous to them is also not dangerous to the actual status quo - so they become irrelevant, producing trite volumes instead of either doing good academic work or helping society by building up real democratic structures.

What I also find interesting is that as I read about these views a thought sometimes crosses my mind like a shadow - what if I accepted such views? The same fleeting feeling comes when I read about religion - what if I were to come to believe in God? It isn't that the thought holds any attraction to me. It is more like the feeling one gets while looking down, a vertiginous thought that one could just jump. It is irrational and frightening but I think it is a good thing that I feel it as it helps me to some degree to understand the people who have embraced such viewpoints. As, indeed, does Wolin's book.


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