“Conflicting panaceas”; decapitation and dogmatism in cultural studies counterpublics

by Sebastian Benthall

I’m still reading through Horkheimer’s Eclipse of Reason. It is dense writing and slow going. I’m in the middle of the second chapter, “Conflicting Panaceas”.

This chapter recognizes and then critiques a variety of intellectual stances of his contemporaries. Whereas in the first chapter Horkheimer takes aim at pragmatism, in this he concerns himself with neo-Thomism and positivism.

Neo-Thomism? Yes, that’s right. Apparently in 1947 one of the major intellectual contenders was a school of thought based on adapting the metaphysics of Saint Thomas Aquinas to modern times. This school of thought was apparently notable enough that while Horkheimer is generally happy to call out the proponents of pragmatism and positivism by name and call them business interest lapdogs, he chooses instead to address the neo-Thomists anonymously in a conciliatory footnote

This important metaphysical school includes some of the most responsible historians and writers of our day. The critical remarks here bear exclusively on the trend by which independent philosophical thought is being superseded by dogmatism.

In a nutshell, Horkheimer’s criticism of neo-Thomism is that it is that since it tries and fails to repurpose old ontologies to the new world, it can’t fulfill its own ambitions as an intellectual system through rigor without losing the theological ambitions that motivate it, the identification of goodness, power, and eternal law. Since it can’t intellectually culminate, it becomes a “dogmatism” that can be coopted disingenuously by social forces.

This is, as I understand it, the essence of Horkheimer’s criticism of everything: That for any intellectual trend or project, unless the philosophical project is allowed to continue to completion within it, it will have its brains slurped out and become zombified by an instrumentalist capitalism that threatens to devolve into devastating world war. Hence, just as neo-Thomism becomes a dogmatism because it would refute itself if it allowed its logic to proceed to completion, so too does positivism become a dogmatism when it identifies the truth with disciplinarily enforced scientific methods. Since, as Horkheimer points out in 1947, these scientific methods are social processes, this dogmatic positivism is another zombie, prone to fads and politics not tracking truth.

I’ve been struggling over the past year or so with similar anxieties about what from my vantage point are prevailing intellectual trends of 2014. Perversely, in my experience the new intellectual identities that emerged to expose scientific procedures as social processes in the 20th century (STS) and establish rhetorics of resistance (cultural studies) have been similarly decapitated, recuperated, and dogmatic. [see 1 2 3].

Are these the hauntings of straw men? This is possible. Perhaps the intellectual currents I’ve witnessed are informal expressions, not serious intellectual work. But I think there is a deeper undercurrent which has turned up as I’ve worked on a paper resulting from this conversation about publics. It hinges on the interpretation of an influential article by Fraser in which she contests Habermas’s notion of the public sphere.

In my reading, Fraser more or less maintains the ideal of the public sphere as a place of legitimacy and reconciliation. For her it is notably inequitable, it is plural not singular, the boundaries of what is public and private are in constant negotiation, etc. But its function is roughly the same as it is for Habermas.

My growing suspicion is that this is not how Fraser is used by cultural studies today. This suspicion began when Fraser was introduced to me; upon reading her work I did not find the objection implicit in the reference to her. It continued as I worked with the comments of a reviewer on a paper. It was recently confirmed while reading Chris Wisniewski’s “Digital Deliberation ?” in Critical Review, vol 25, no. 2, 2013. He writes well:

The cultural-studies scholars and critical theorists interested in diversifying participation through the Internet have made a turn away from this deliberative ideal. In an essay first published in 1990, the critical theorist Nancy Fraser (1999, 521) rejects the idealized model of bourgeois public sphere as defined by Habermas on the grounds that it is exclusionary by design. Because the bourgeois public sphere brackets hierarchies of gender, race, ethnicity, class, etc., Fraser argues, it benefits the interests of dominant groups by default through its elision of socially significant inequalities. Lacking the ability to participate in the dominant discourse, disadvantaged groups establish alternative “subaltern counterpublics”.

Since the ideal speech situation does not acknowledge the socially significant inequalities that generate these counterpublics, Fraser argues for a different goal: a model of participatory democracy in which intercultural communications across socially stratified groups occur in forums that do not elide differences but intead allow diverse multiple publics the opportunity to determine the concerns or good of the public as a whole through “discursive contestations.” Fraser approaches thes subgroups as identity publics and aruges that culture and political debate are essentially power struggles among self-interested subgroups. Fraser’s ideas are similar to those prevalent in cultural studies (see Wisneiwski 2007 and 2010), a relatively young discipline in which her work has been influential.

Fraser’s theoretical model is inconsistent with studies of democratic voting behavior, which indicate that people tend to vote sociotropically, according to a perceived collective interest, and not in facor of their own perceived self-interest (e.g., Kinder and Kiewiet 1981). The argument that so-called “mass” culture excludes the interests of dominated groups in favor of the interests of the elites loses some of its valence if culture is not a site through which self-interested groups vie for their objective interests, but is rather a forum in which democratic citizens debate what constitutes, and the best way to achieve, the collective good. Diversification of discourse ceases to be an end in itself.”

I think Wisneiwski hits the nail on the head here, a nail I’d like to drive in farther. If culture is conceived of as consisting of the contests of self-interested identity groups, as this version of cultural studies does, then it will necessarily see itself as one of many self-interested identities. Cultural studies becomes, by its own logic, a counterpublic that exists primarily to advance its own interests.

But just like neo-Thomism, this positioning decapitates cultural studies by preventing it from intellectually confronting its own limitations. No identity can survive rigorous intellectual interrogation, because all identities are based on contingency, finitude, trauma. Cultural studies adopt and repurpose historical rhetorics of liberation much like neo-Thomists adopted and repurposed historical metaphysics of Christianity. The obsolescence of these rhetorics, like the obsolescence of Thomistic metaphysics, is what makes them dangerous. The rhetoric that maintains its own subordination as a condition of its own identity can never truly liberate, it can only antagonize. Unable to intellectually realize its own purpose, it becomes purposeless and hence coopted and recuperated like other dogmatisms. In particular, it feeds into “the politicization of absolutely everything”, in the language of Ezra Klein’s spot-on analysis of GamerGate. Cultural studies is a powerful ideology because it turns culture into a field of perpetual rivalry with all the distracting drama of reality television. In so doing, it undermines deeper intellectual penetration into the structural conditions of society.

If cultural studies is the neo-Thomism of today, a dogmatist religious revival of the profound theology of the civil rights movement, perhaps it’s the theocratic invocation of ‘algorithms’ that is the new scientism. I would have more to say about it if it weren’t so similar to the old scientism.

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