Monday, May 26, 2008

When Gibberish Goes Wrong

The head of the Carleton Conservative Union sent me a link to a piece called The Post-Left: An Archeology and a Genealogy, calling it "provoking". For the sake of the college I am leaving behind, I can only hope he meant something other than "thought provoking", or if that's too much to ask, "provoking thought about how awful it would be to believe this is worthwhile scholarship", because otherwise I have serious fears about what my dear Carleton conservatives consider to be a compelling argument.

[Update: Thus far it appears my prayers have been answered, as all the responses from the CCU listserve I've received have been in agreement that this article is only "provoking" in the sense of making me want to throw something.]

The author of the piece is one Gabriel Noah Brahm Jr., and the outlet he published it in is known as Democratiya, a journal dedicated to book reviews. In their own words:
Democratiya aims to be accessible to 'the common reader'. The discipline of the plain style, and a refusal of the obscurantist prose of contemporary academia, is today a political act of the first importance. We seek good writing, less adorned and more luminous, as well as thoughtful analysis, and a bit of style. Anyone seeking a model should look at Dissent. Careful exposition of the central arguments of the book under review is important. But so is the critical response of the reviewer. Authors will have a standing right of reply and reviewers a standing right of rejoinder.

I give this brief prologue just to highlight all the more the ridiculous manner in which Brahm writes. Here is a sentence from his "review" (I never did figure out what precisely he was reviewing -- an observation which rapidly took on multiple layers of meaning as I muddled through). Not just any sentence either: the very first sentence:
A synchronic (structural) and diachronic (historical) analysis of today's anti-Western left is sorely needed.

And here is the first sentence of Part I ("Archeology of the Post-Left: The Case for Discursive Regime Change"):
Post-left thought is an exercise in ressentiment unhinged from politics in the Aristotelian sense of politike, or the 'art of the common life.'

"Common reader", indeed. Now, I like good old fashioned jargon as much as any fine leftist. And I know it when I see it. So tell me: Is there any doubt at all that Brahm is trying to mimic the very "obscurantist prose of contemporary academia", that of the very leftists (or post-left or whoever it is he's talking about -- more on that in a moment) he's reacting against?

So the review is a catastrophic failure of style (is this a political failure "of the first importance"?). Perhaps it can do better under the "thoughtful analysis" or "careful exposition" rubrics. It'd be an easier task for me to evaluate if I had any idea what Brahm is reviewing, but it is never specified -- Brahm appears to want to take on the entire "post-left" writ large. Not quite a "review" then, but still, maybe Brahm can make some insightful argument on what the "post-left" is, and why we should care.

Or maybe not. Brahm does, to his credit, give a reasonably (for an obscurantist academic, anyway) coherent list of six tenets held by the "post-left":
1. Inverted Exceptionalism. Take the old 'exceptionalist' idea and flip it. America is unique among nations – just not uniquely good, that's all. The horrid US, with its crude consumer culture, unparalleled racism, and war-mongering politicians, is to blame for everything.

2. Post-Zionism. Ditto the above for Israel. One is the tool of the other in the US-Israel relationship, though it's not clear which is which. For Walt and Mearsheimer, Israel manipulates the US. For Chomsky, it's the reverse. In any event, Israel's right to exist is put in question (at best).

3. Third Worldism. The wretched of the earth ('multitudes,' whatever) are not just unlucky but morally superior to the earth's beneficiaries. Empowered by powerlessness to take the place of the proletariat in conventional Marxist doxology, the Third World Other can do no wrong. It's all 'resistance' whatever it is, up to and including terrorism. In this salvation myth, any two-bit despot – from Hugo Chavez to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Hasan Nasrallah, even Osama bin Laden – can be seen to represent a salutary rebuke to American Capital and The West. So the millenarian imagination persists, after 'the end of history'.

4. Cultural Revolution. It's Manichean also. Because of #1 and #2, a complete transformation of consciousness is needed to wipe away all the micro-corruptions of US-led capitalism, and replace these with more salutary (revolutionary) habits of mind (to be discovered thanks in part to #3). Eventually, everything 'bourgeois', 'white' and 'male' will have to go. For now it can all be 'deconstructed'. Stir in to this 'methodology' heavy doses of Sixties-style antinomianism and Seventies-style New Ageism, and you have a heady cocktail: the mind slips its moorings.

5. Totalitarian Ideology. Ah, but moorings are so very reassuring when one finds oneself adrift! In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt outlined the closed-world world-view of the totalizing mind and its self-serving auto-validating procedures. She was talking then about Stalinism and Nazism, but it works for the post-left too (if that sounds like a harsh comparison, see #6 below). [4] For inside the cramped and airless theoretical space of the post-left one finds that (a) every question receives an exhaustive total explanation, situating the smallest detail of an argument within a vast theodicy with no outside and little room for ambiguity or surprise. Nothing escapes and no light gets in, while (b) such explanations are independent of and resistant to experience. The post-left's is an entirely 'a priori' structure of thought. And this inclusive, arbitrary narrative without a referent is also (c) ultra-consistent. Why not, when you're making it up as you go along? Not only does everything fit that gets in, and nothing gets in that doesn't fit, but the results are always the same: the same demons, the same victims. And finally (d) we find the ascription of collective guilt to 'enemies'. The condemned in the post-left scheme of things will be judged not according to what they do or say or think but what they are. The post-left, in short, offers its followers a tidy picture of a messy world, suitable for lazy and credulous minds.

6. Islamism. With #1-5, the nascent post-left prepared the way for the embrace of radical Islamism after 9/11 as a form of 'resistance', indigenous to the Third World (#3), aimed at a guilty US (#1) and Israel (#2), striking a blow for 'difference' (#4), that simply had to be good in some way (#5). And it was this final element, I suggest, that catalyzed the other ingredients to produce the post-left proper.

Hopefully that dispelled any doubts that my mockery of its style resulted from passages out of context! In any event, I read this section, and I am at once illuminated and confused. Illuminated, because I think I've got what Brahm means by "post-left". Someone is "post-left" if they think that America and Israel do everything wrong and are the supreme evils, that the "third world" can do nothing wrong, that we need a revolution to correct these corruptions and erase every vestige of them, in a narrative is totalitarian and all encompassing, and that the immediate political manifestation of the whole deal is an embrace of militant Islamism. None of these elements are cited anywhere, of course, despite the fact that the essay is footnoted.

Confused, because while I certainly can think of people who embrace some of these elements (though rarely in the cartoonish version Brahm lays out), and perhaps can conceptualize someone adhering to all of them, I am given no serious reason to believe that this nexus of views represents anything approaching a movement, much less an influential one, even amongst "the left". Though "post-left" would seem to imply something "beyond" or "after" the left, it is clear Brahm believes the ailment he so meticulously describes to be some sort of malignant sub-species of leftist discourse. At this point in my read, my feeling was that even if this argument was being robustly maintained, I have no idea what it has to do with "the left". Would it not be just as sensible to say that these "post-leftists" hate the "conventional(?)" left, and vice versa, and proceed from there? Not if the purpose is to engage in the academic S&M that constitutes supposedly liberal folks flogging "the left".

It's possible I am wrong, of course, and the "post-left" infestation is in fact running wild through left-wing circles. Already, however, there is reason to be skeptical on this accord. If the plague were so wide-spread, one would expect it would be easy to find examples -- and once found, they would be, you know, "left." Alas, this appears to be too much to ask. Of the three people he identifies as indicted under this model, only one can in any true sense be identified as of the left at all. Noam Chomsky is most certainly left-wing. Stephen Walt and John J. Mearsheimer most certainly are not, unless neo-Realism is suddenly a leftist ideology. Why they are persistently lumped in with the left eludes me, save the fact that they nourish the idea that only leftists have problematic views with regards to Israel -- hardly sufficient reason for the categorization. There goes "intelligent analysis." But it was a flippant reference anyhow. Maybe if we keep going, we will see how post-leftism is a persistent thread throughout the theorizing of the left academy.

No, as it turns out, our original instinct was correct after all. To buttress his argument that the "post-left" as he describes it is a salient force, Brahm cites to ("engages with" would be far, far too kind) a grand total of four people (not including the aforementioned one-off for Chomsky, Walt & Mearsheimer): Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri (who should really count as one since they co-wrote the book in question), Saba Mahmood, and the ever-present Judith Butler. It is not even worth our time to "address each in turn," for the simple reason that even if they all had co-written a book together arguing precisely this "post-left" ideology that Brahm says is so prevalent, four people are not enough to prove even a trend, let alone a worrisome one. In fact, from what little I know of them, I would not be surprised if both Hardt & Negri, and Mahmood, would fit roughly under Brahm's post-left frame. H&N are old-school Marxists, of course, and old-school Marxism has fallen somewhat out of style amongst the rest of the left, as Brahm might have noticed if he had stopped fighting the Cold War along with the rest of us. Mahmood I've been singularly unimpressed with when I've come across her, but that does not happen often. Regardless, even with this meager cast of characters Brahm does not actually link back the words of these authors to his six-element list of post-left tenets. One might think that if you're struggling that mightily to find a soul to fill your scarecrow, there might be larger problems afoot.

It's Butler, however, that deserve special mention here. The citation to Butler comes not to one of her academic texts, but to an answer she gave during a Q&A session after delivering a speech, as reported by a blog, so already we're on shaky terrain. This is the sentence Brahm devotes to her: "Judith Butler, professor of Rhetoric at Berkeley, and leading figure of the post-left, endorsed Hezbollah and Hamas as 'part of the global left'." (But are they "post-left"?) Now, recall Brahm's third element of what constitutes "post-left" -- that the third worlders (of which Hezbollah and Hamas are presumably a part) can do no wrong. Now, append the part of Butler's quote which he leaves out, but which is quite present in the blog post he links to in the footnote: "but [it] doesn't stop us from criticizing them."

Selective quotation is a grievous academic sin, particular when it leaves out such important modifiers like "but". In this case, the "but" seems to knock Butler conclusively out of the "post-left." The third world, it seems, can do wrong after all! Butler specifically says that their membership in the "left" (however defined) doesn't preclude that. In other words, her argument is the precise opposite of the typology Brahm puts her in. This is borderline academic misconduct -- though perhaps his peers will take into account the entirety of the article and conclude its actually parody. To be blunt, it's his only hope.

To be very, very kind, Brahm is shadow-boxing at a nearly non-existent foe (and losing). To be less kind, he's trying to smear a wide swath of "the left" via association to this phantom via a menagerie of dodgy argumentative practices. One of Brahm's early complaints about the "post-left" is that its "explanations are independent of and resistant to experience." Experience teaches us that virtually nobody is making the arguments Brahm is talking about, and that those who are possess virtually no influence. And experience has now continued to teach us that -- when writing and reacting to the arguments of the left in all its diversity and splendor -- we should look to brighter and more sophisticated thinkers than Gabriel Brahm.

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