On online schools of thought

In my day, I’ve had run-ins with a few self-declared “schools of thought,” and all those interactions have been invariably toxic. One is probably reminded of the old truism that if you have nothing but bad relationships, you have to recognize that the common factor is you — and I’m sure I’ve contributed in my own way. That being said, however, there are some familiar dynamics that seem to repeat themselves.

First, the new name brand is trotted out as though it was a well-defined position. Sometimes, as with Accelerationism, you’ll find a literal manifesto — but in all cases, there have been efforts at exposition and wide-ranging discussions of what an “X school of thought” position on a given issue is. We are informed of all the exciting influence that this school of thought is having in the most wide-ranging settings.

Second, when criticisms — or in some cases, actual innocent questions — arise, the previously well-defined label becomes radically indeterminate. Depending on the precise nature of the criticism, a few strategies are available. The first, and to me most annoying, is to claim that the critique doesn’t adequately account for the rich diversity of thought represented by this movement (which was formed a year and a half ago). This can shade into the claim that the movement as such doesn’t actually exist, that it’s just a contingent grouping of radically heterogeneous forms of thought that found some temporarily overlapping factors. The alternative is to hunker down and claim that the new school of thought is the subject of a widespread smear campaign, a brave persecuted minority. We can’t get a fair hearing in the academy for this thing that we just came up with! Will our suffering never end?

And of course, once the storm has passed, the school is yet again an exciting, influential movement that’s sweeping the globe. Rinse and repeat.

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10 Responses to “On online schools of thought”

  1. Dean Says:

    This seems right to me. Is there a way, though, to recognize the overlapping interests of several thinkers who are committed to a major vision, even if there’s a radical disparity between them on this or that point? There’s something attractive to me about having a “school” of thought as a descriptive or retrospective label (i.e. the “Kyoto School” or the “Cambridge Platonists”), and I realize the problem here is almost intentionally setting out to create a momentum that can only emerge in time, maybe something like how you can’t really give yourself a nickname but rely on others to do it. But at the same time, there’s a definite advantage to having a group of friends pursuing similar questions and with similar interests or methods or whatever.

    As you can see, I’m struggling to make sense of this, but I’m trying to follow an intuition.

  2. Adam Kotsko Says:

    The self-proclamation seems to be the specifically toxic element.

  3. Dean Says:

    Do you think there’s a way one might intentionally create a school of thought and still avoid the toxicity? Obviously it’s still a pure creation out of nothing, but it does seem like a useful way of getting somewhere, in the same way a thinker like Kierkegaard wants to talk about unifying one’s personality and willing one thing. So it seems like maybe there could be a collective will that would be useful, provided it remains open to critique and more analogous to an individual. Unity is important for creativity in an individual (especially clear in cases like pursuing too many research tangents at once, for example); perhaps it could operate similarly in a group.

    (In case it needs to be said, these fall under the “innocent questions” category. I’m trying to think out loud and I don’t have any stock in a “school” of thought…yet…)

  4. Adam Kotsko Says:

    It seems like the non-toxic eras of even the most fruitful schools of thought were remarkably brief.

  5. AcademicLurker Says:

    This post triggered flashbacks to the endless arguments over Theory vs theory at The Valve back in the day.

  6. Dominic Fox Says:

    I heard high school cliques can get pretty aggro too.

  7. Mikhail Emelianov Says:

    I wish you’d elaborate on “rinse and repeat” part – online schools of thought are rather tenacious, aren’t they?

  8. Adam Kotsko Says:

    It seems like as they rinse and repeat, they gradually splinter, until there’s only one guy who identifies with the school and it’s retconned that he was always the only one.

  9. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    So an “interesting” and “nuanced” Nick Land said some stuff today. NB that Lucca pushed back a bit more later on, though I don’t think it laid out a real response. Though of course this is twitter so that’s a real challenge, of course. You can see her timeline for more.

    I point this out only because it was claimed numerous times in the discussion below that Nick Land avoided the more noxious racist elements of neoreactionarism and so was still an interesting dialogue partner for accelerationism (I refuse to say “left”).

    https://storify.com/A_P_S/nick-land-nuanced-racist-and-interesting-dialogue

  10. Yoshi (B4B/TTR) (@B4Btv) Says:

    As I was reading the comments on that other post, I was reminded of the Kant-Schleiermacher debate on anthropology. Schleiermacher pointed out the racist tendencies in Kant and traced them back to the latter’s definition of humanity, which treated transcendental freedom as constitutive of humanity as such. So it’s not a new problem, but something humanists and rationalists have struggled with for quite some time. This makes me suspicious of the claim to novelty that these schools are making. Also, this type of school politics reminds me of Kantians, historical and contemporary.


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