Relativism: The spontaneous ideology of the undergraduate

In the Social Sciences capstone at Shimer, we spend a lot of time on texts that emphasize the social mediation of reality and call into question any kind of simplistic empiricism — Mannheim’s “sociology of knowledge,” Foucauldian power analysis, feminist critiques of the scientific enterprise, etc. One thing that has stood out to me in these readings is how often they are haunted by the specter of relativism. Mannheim probably does the best job of accounting for the problem out of our readings, pointing out that it is a kind of intellectual halfway house where the idea of absolute truth has been denied and yet the basic dichotomy of absolute truth vs. opinion has persisted — hence if nothing (alas!) can attain to the impossible ideal of absolute truth, everything must be “your opinion, man.”

Other readings are more openly scornful of the idea of relativism, though the attention they give to it shows that they expect it to be tempting. And in my experience, it is tempting for a population I spend a lot of time with: undergraduates. One might even call relativism the spontaneous ideology of the first-year college student. The absolute truths of their upbringing are being called into question. Even if they are able to dispense with the content of their previous truth, though, it will take time and work to get rid of its form — hence the ideal of unlimited open-mindedness and the profound realization that “everything’s subjective.”

It may not work well as a consistent intellectual position — though once in a while you’ll get the truly principled relativist who’s unwilling to pass judgment even on Nazis or slave traders — but it does function as a strategy for avoiding conflict. If the negative reference to relativism is a kind of trump card in high-flown theoretical debates, it serves as a different kind of trump card in the student lounge: any serious argument can be shut down before it gets too heated. At the same time, it serves as a means of self-defense as well, because if one’s views are worthy of respect simply by virtue of existing, one does not have to put in much work in defending them (to others or oneself).

I know it sounds like I’m making fun, and to a certain extent I am. But I don’t think we should underestimate the extent to which this somewhat irritating step in the process is necessary — not only on the world-historical level charted by Mannheim, but in the unfolding of the individual mind. Eventually one starts to realize that total relativism simply isn’t very interesting and that it doesn’t make sense to say that the best way to “respect” intellectual positions is to abstain from seriously engaging with them. Even if the quest for absolute truth is fruitless, there is still local knowledge to be had, and perhaps that local knowledge will turn out to be richer and more interesting than the illusion of absolute truth ever could have been. Even the self-defensive move of exempting one’s own views from criticism is shifted into a more productive gear, as one becomes capable of detaching oneself from one’s opinions and assessing them critically — indeed, one might perhaps learn that the having of opinions is not an end in itself and that engaging in the search for local knowledges can be more satisfying without the teleology of the “hot take.”

To get to that point, though, one needs that initial act of purely negative suspension.

The beginning of a thought on “religious liberty”

As noted in the title, this is just the beginning of a thought, but I think there may be something about the public/private distinction at play in the recent (deplorable) “religious liberty” cases involving businesses. The question, it seems to me, is whether a business is public or private. The vague Hobby Lobby standard of “small, closely-held companies” seems to indicate that there are certain types of businesses that are more like a private concern, and hence you have control over whether your values are respected in that space. The implicit contrast is with publicly-held companies, which are (in principle) owned by “the public at large” and hence can’t demand the same kinds of rights that businesses more associated with a defined individual or group can.

In Aristotle, the economic realm is what we would call private. It’s something like the threshold of the political — there are forms of power at work, it is necessary as a support of the political, but it’s not yet the political. The modern concept of economy seems to carry the economic at least partway across the threshold, insofar as the economic is the realm of contract and law, etc. Yet in the terms of classical liberal political theory, there’s also a sense in which it remains a pre-political space, a presupposed background to political deliberation.

A “publicly held” company is fully across the threshold — it has entered into the public realm and is accountable to public norms. The “privately held” company is part of an individual’s property, conceptually a part of his “household” — and here I’m thinking in the full Aristotelian sense, where the workers he hires are also included in his household, as were the household slaves for Aristotle. It may be creepy and weird (not to say illegal) for the HR director at Bank of America to take an interest in the sexual practices of employees, but what about for a servant I’m inviting into my home? Perhaps it makes sense that this is the new staging ground for the “family values” campaigns of the conservative movement.

Exhausted Politics: A Few Comments on the Video for Run the Jewels’ “Close Your Eyes (and Count to F**K)”

Run the Jewels just released a video for one of my favorite songs on their recent album. The video is hard to watch, if only because there is something hard to watch in the fictional violence against a black man that is expressive of the images of real violence we have seen every month and that others have been seeing long before social media made this available to wider audiences. The video is open to lots of poor readings, including one I saw on Facebook by a certain popular, nihilistic appropriator of black culture. It’s not really important to name names here, but the reading he gave was that there is a certain reversibility in the image of the struggle between the white cop and the black man. It’s a poor reading in large part because it takes an abstract expression captured by film as if it were supposed to be a documentary or even as if these images were supposed to be didactic. But it’s also poor simply because the supposed reversibility is not present. The cop expresses his positionality as an instance of an institution with his uniform, with his gun, his mace, with his handcuffs, with this lights and sirens, and so on. These are progressively lost throughout the video, but it isn’t as if the black man gains them, or takes on the position. The only one who is able to issue a command, to make a declaration, thereby being the voice of an institution, is the cop (“Don’t you fucking run!”). Of course the only response to such a demand is to start running and to look for a weapon as you do. In so far as the black man expresses he does so through without the recourse to language, without the structure that would project him into transcendence, he has no ground but his own existence, his own expression in the flesh.

Generally I tend to avoid reading an artist’s statement on their own work. The work itself expresses and when I write on that work I like to think I’m building and riffing off the work, rather than providing the true reading of it. But I see the artist’s statement as their own act of riffing and building, without any particular access to the truth of the work either. So I’m largely setting aside AG Rojas’ remarks aside. But, he is very clear that these two figures are not meant to stand for the reality, that these are precisely archetypes in his words. Instead of looking at the video as an instance of reversibility, shouldn’t we see it rather as an instance of the struggle between the master and the slave? And perhaps this exhausted tussle is an advance upon the mixed determination present in Hegel of these figures. That they are an abstraction is the point. They are an abstraction in the form of thinking through the problematic of America, not just police violence against black people, but America as such as a country built upon violence against black people and that’s why the video is largely successful in my view. As the tussle plays out upon a background emptied of any people, of anything but the struggle, we are given a meditation on the relationship of blacks/whites as such. In that relationship the few glimpses of triumph or relative transcendence are scenes of the black man. Free from the relationship with the cop as such, but this only exists as a virtual possibility as they sit on the marriage bed, a loveless marriage to one another as the train that calls itself progress rings in the distance.

One of the first things that struck me as I was watching was a remark that James Cone made in an interview with Bill Boyers some years back.

JAMES CONE: […] Now, you don’t get away from that by not talking about it. That’s too deep. Germany is not going to get away from the Holocaust by not talking about it. It’s too deep. So, America must face up that we are one community. We– you know, if anybody in this society– if anybody is brother and sister to the other, it’s black people and white people because there is a– there is a tussle there that you cannot get out of. It is a– it is deeply engrained in our relationship to each other in a way that’s not with anybody else–

BILL MOYERS: How do you mean?

JAMES CONE: –in this land.

BILL MOYERS: What do you mean?

JAMES CONE: Because 246 years of slavery, number one. We have built this country. White people know that. Then, after slavery, segregation and lynching, we still helped built this country. So, it’s a history of violence […]

This familial tussle (either between brothers or something more sinister) plays out as exhaustion in the video. The relationship is one of exhaustion precisely because politics is exhausted in this relationship. While one form of (white supremacist) politics is constituted by this relationship (a politics we are all exhausted of), even the higher politics is exhausted by this relationship. Even the cop, a willing pawn in the construction of the exhausting politics, is exhausted. Or, as Fred Moten puts it to white people regarding any possible coalition, “I don’t need your help. I just need you to recognize that this shit is killing you, too, however much more softly, you stupid motherfucker, you know?”

I can think of no better filmic expression of the feeling of exhaustion than this video, of being exhausted before the present political options, and so expressive of the need to think of something else. Or at least to find a way out of the exhausting relation of this kind of politics as such. Or at least that’s my reading.

Upcoming Book Event: Sayyid’s Recalling the Caliphate

9781849040037In late May we will be hosting the next AUFS book event on S. Sayyid’s Recalling the Caliphate: Decolonisation and World Order (Amazon). Sayyid was formerly the Director of the International Centre of Muslim and Non-Muslim Understanding at the University of South Australia and is currently based at the University of Leeds. His faculty page can be found here and a description of the book is included below. Be sure to order a copy of the book so that you can follow along! There should be some great discussion around this incredibly timely text.

We have an excellent line-up of contributors, some AUFS regulars and a few new folks:

  • Basit Iqbal
  • Asma Afsaruddin
  • Adam Kotsko
  • Selim Karlitekin
  • Yasmina Raiani
  • Nadia Sariahmed
  • Anthony Paul Smith

From the publisher:

As late as the last quarter of the twentieth century, there were expectations that Islam’s political and cultural influence would dissipate as the advance of westernization brought modernization and secularization in its wake. Not only has Islam failed to follow the trajectory pursued by variants of Christianity, namely confinement to the private sphere and depoliticisation, but it has also forcefully re-asserted itself as mobilizations in its name challenge the global order in a series of geopolitical, cultural and philosophical struggles. The continuing (if not growing) relevance of Islam suggests that global history cannot simply be presented as a scaled up version of that of the West. Quests for Muslim autonomy present themselves in several forms – local and global, extremist and moderate, conservative and revisionist – in the light of which the recycling of conventional narratives about Islam becomes increasingly problematic. Not only are these accounts inadequate for understanding Muslim experiences, but by relying on them many Western governments pursue policies that are counter-productive and ultimately hazardous for Muslims and non-Muslims alike. “Recalling the Caliphate” engages critically with the interaction between Islam and the political in context of a post colonial world that continues to resist profound decolonization. In the first part of this book, Sayyid focuses on how demands for Muslim autonomy are debated in terms such as democracy, cultural relativism, secularism, and liberalism. Each chapter analyzes the displacements and evasions by which the decolonization of the Muslim world continues to be deflected and deferred, while the latter part of the book builds on this critique, exploring, and attempts to accelerate the decolonization of the Muslim Ummah.


Writing to order

Over the last couple weeks, I have been working on a report for a committee at school. It started in a subcommittee made up of four people, but the intention was to produce a report that would reflect the whole committee, so there were subsequent rounds of editing that may or may not be over even as we speak. The report is on an issue that is important to me, but at this point, I can’t even gauge whether it reflects “my views” — nor what that would even mean or if it’s relevant. Even in its first draft, my goal was mostly to capture the views of my subcommittee members (in this case, all students).

I like to think that it still hangs together as a piece of writing and doesn’t have the open seams one associates with writing “by committee.” There’s a certain pride in the craftsmanship of the thing — even the formatting, as I tweak line spacing and fonts to keep it on the front and back of a single printed page — that somehow transcends the actual content. Whenever I’m the primary author of a group report, I always want more than “something everyone will sign onto.” I want a piece of writing that won’t embarrass me.

This misplaced pride afflicted me even in grad school, when I made extra money by writing up mutual fund reports. Obviously the content is fairly stereotyped, and I developed a range of synonyms to cycle through each piece. When I received queries that claimed my carefully honed wording was confusing or misleading, I felt defensive — and then immediately felt ashamed, because who cares? Indeed, I’m still not even sure who read those reports, if anyone.

One hard lesson I learned in that process is that when you receive a query, it’s never sufficient to explain why what you already wrote suffices. You have to make some kind of token change to satisfy the demand. And doesn’t the same thing apply in academia? Don’t editors sometimes advise us to tweak certain things as a way of going through the motions of peer review? Don’t we all instinctively know that saying, “No, the way I had it was fine and the problem is yours” is no way to make your way through academia?

We may chafe at it, but I think our academic writing is often more like those committee reports or mutual fund results than like an authentic expression of our creativity. At every level, we are writing to order at least to some extent. This is true of journalists, obviously, but also of other more traditionally “creative” fields. Whenever we write, someone else is party to it. Someone has to sign onto it, or someone is paying us, or someone is lending us a sliver of their prestige — and they want to leave their mark.

Sometimes I am puzzled that my students seem so stressed out when I tell them they can choose their own topic. But then I reflect that I’m mainly thinking of older students, who should be “past that” — i.e., they should know how to generate a topic within the implicit boundaries. I’m not expecting them to be genuinely creative or self-expressive, but to have caught on to “the kind of thing” that one writes in an academic paper at our peculiar school. I wonder, though, if even the pretense of open-endedness is serving them poorly — or if I should at least include an explicit requirement that they “pitch” their topic to me ahead of time. Cruellest of all, perhaps, is the marriage of open-ended free exploration and exacting judgment.

Notes toward an overanalysis of a failed sci-fi spin-off

I’ve been using Gerry Canavan’s Star Trek CFP as an excuse for “researching” the red-headed stepchildren of the franchise: Enterprise and The Animated Series. I began by rewatching Enterprise over the last couple months, a process that is coming to completion. Over the course of this rewatch, I shared with the members of the Daystrom Institute a wide range of theories and assessments — again, justifying this as “research,” to see how the fan community responds to my ideas. This morning, I wrote up my definitive assessment of the final season, so hopefully my obsessive Enterprise redditing is at an end. Hence I compile some highlights here for those who are interested in my hermeneutical approach to an unpopular and mostly forgotten Star Trek spin-off.

  • In which I consider how Enterprise might reframe certain events and themes from the original series.
  • In which I make the daring claim that the Borg episode does not cause a continuity error and indeed is necessary to preserve continuity.
  • In which I debunk of a popular fan theory that the show caused an alternate timeline.
  • In which I cautiously reassess the concept behind the series finale and argue that it was in principle a cool idea that should have been used more frequently in earlier seasons.
  • In which I stake out the claim that the first two seasons were actually the best, contrary to most fans.
  • In which I ask what it was like to watch the season 3 Xindi arc in real time, prompting a Post of the Week-winning comment relating a time when the online fan community collaboratively invented a made-up episode in the course of “critiquing” and “defending” it.
  • In which I wonder aloud whether the Temporal Cold War could provide the grounds for an in-universe explanation of the existence of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
  • In which I argue that Enterprise and The Animated Series are the most systematic instances of world-building within the Star Trek franchise.
  • In which I investigate the possible influence of MacGyver and X-Files on Enterprise.
  • In which I reveal that the reboot films draw to a surprising degree on Enterprise.
  • In which I put forth the episode “Hatchery” as exemplary of Enterprise‘s particular strengths as a series.
  • In which I issue a scathing critique of the Orion Slave Girls episode.

  • In which I assess the final season, contradicting the widely-accepted fan opinion that it is among the best of the series.

As they say, look up on my works, ye mighty, and despair.

The dangers of using the master’s tools

Everyone knows what “diversity” means in an academic context. It does not mean making sure there is a good balance between chess players and lacrosse players. It does not refer to the desire that Republicans and Democrats should be roughly equally represented. It refers, rather, to the attempt to give more space to people (including texts) of personal backgrounds that have historically been excluded from universities and from academic consideration of their experiences and perspectives—people of color, women, working-class people, people of non-normative sexual identities, disabled people, etc. Again, everyone knows this. Anyone who does not should be able to pick up on the context clues and determine that, ah yes, this is the kind of diversity in question.

Some people feign ignorance on this question, however. They claim that there are many possible kinds of diversity and that we need to be really clear on our definition. They may say that they support diversity when it turns out that they mean they support greater representation for their pet subject or group. In other words, they take advantage of the apparent abstract formalism of “diversity” and take it literally—in a way that undermines the actual goals that everyone knows the term is supposed to serve. And there is no way to stop them from doing this. The very thing that makes “diversity” rhetorically attractive—the content-free universality that makes it such a good fit in the realm of liberal formalism—is also what makes it so gameable.

From the perspective of poetic justice, it may seem fair enough for diversity advocates to get gamed, because they’re trying to game the system of abstract liberal universalism—trying to slip in particularist demands through the back door. I personally don’t object to such gaming and even think it can be strategically necessary. But I think this is also a good example of the fact that attempts to game the system always put you up against the people who designed and benefit from the system, the people who live and breathe the system. And whatever we think of using the master’s tools in principle, in practice there remains the indisputable fact that the master is probably better at using those tools than you are.

This is where the #BlackLivesMatter campaign is so attractive. It doesn’t obsfuscate the goal through strategic abstraction. It says exactly what it wants, rather than setting up some new form of liberal proceduralism that will supposedly deliver what it wants without offending anyone. It’s unafraid of being divisive. Best of all, it’s a trap that exposes the lie of abstract liberal universality—the defensive white person who responds #AllLivesMatter is quite literally enacting the erasure of Black experience in the guise of a false universalism.


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