The paralogisms of pure dismissal

Dismissal is a fundamental feature of the intellectual life. We are all finite and limited, both in time and in mental capacity, and so it will inevitably happen that we feel compelled to dismiss some cultural product or other — indeed, entire fields of cultural products.

The decision on what to dismiss is structurally unjustifiable. In principle, if you set about justifying your dismissal, you must engage in activities other than dismissal — critique, for instance. But for your critique to be valid, you must spend considerable time on the cultural product in question, which misses the point of dismissing it in the first place.

Let’s say, for instance, that I dismiss Lovecraft. I don’t care about Cthuhlu or any other theme, character, or event portrayed in Lovecraft’s work. Lovecraft just does not seem to me to be worthy of attention.

Then suppose someone challenges me on it: many smart people, even professional philosophers, think Lovecraft is great! How can I dismiss him? This is where I risk being drawn into the trap. If I critique Lovecraft, I reveal how laughably superficial my knowledge of Lovecraft is — hence my dismissal cannot be taken seriously. The only thing I can do if I want to justify myself is precisely to study Lovecraft closely, to engage deeply with the philosophical dialogue surrounding his work, in the hopes of finding it to be, as I suspected, valueless. And all that time spent proving I was right not to study Lovecraft would only result in dismissal by Lovecraft fans — after all, I did not approach Lovecraft with an open mind!

The only option is to have the courage of your dismissal. If someone tries to goad you into justifying your decision to dismiss something, the only possible answer is: “I just don’t care.” But how can you not care? “I don’t care.” The abyss of freedom emerges as the abyss of apathy, in which the space of reason and justification collapses into the sheer assertion of “I would prefer not to.” Only in dismissing Lovecraft, in short, are we truly free.

10 Responses to “The paralogisms of pure dismissal”

  1. Lenny caution Says:

    I like this attitude from Kim Gordon

    Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?

    There are a lot of books I’ve started but haven’t finished, too many to count. I bring books along on tours, and start them three or four times, then forget about them. It’s never the book’s fault.


    Am thinking this has something to do with James distinction between the first born and second born religious temperaments – the second born need there to be bad cultural products so that the good can shine- the first born withold negative judgement and go on to the next thing they like

  2. Antiall Says:

    This is one of those cases where I’m discomforted by the sense that several related but different meanings of a term are in play. Is dismissing Lovecraft because you judge the work unworthy of attention — dismiss implying at least a preliminary critique — the same as dismissing Lovecraft because you choose not to care given you’re a finite being? On the other hand, doesn’t the latter sense imply the former has been applied? But then… OK, I see your problem.

    So what you’re saying is that if you do not want to be drawn into a discourse then the only way not to be drawn into the discourse is to refuse to play. I agree with that.

  3. William Says:

    But that’s only the first stage of the strategy cf. Matrix Revolutions, dismiss “Because l choose to”, offer yourself up to Lovecraft for assimilation before becoming a vanishing mediator for the deletion of Lovecroft.

  4. William Says:

    In reply to Antiall’s comment, if l am following correctly, the position one occupies in the dismissal that Adam recommends is akin to the analysts discourse where instead of speaking from the place of your cherished master, Lacan/Deleuze/Zizek etc… You speak from the position of finite as such, which is logically prior to staking a position on any one particular cultural product (even your own cherished one).

  5. Adam Kotsko on “pure dismissal” | this cage is worms Says:

    […] Adam Kotsko has a post up at AUFS about how one can engage in dismissal in a world dominated by critical thinking. […]

  6. Giordano Says:

    Isn’t this more or less the same reason people give for dismissing all continental philosophy as obscurantist gibberish? I strongly agree with most of what you’re saying but I feel it’s important to note that we often can have better or worse reasons for dismissal.

  7. Adam Kotsko Says:

    If they dismiss it as obscurantist gibberish, they open themselves up to the paradox. They can only say “not for me” — which is in fact what I do for analytic philosophy.

  8. Greg Says:

    Sendak (and Melville before him) understood this.

  9. lgbierman Says:

    Agnotology: The Making and Unmaking of Ignorance by Robert N. Proctor
    might interest you as you ponder dismissal.

  10. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Doesn’t seem like my kind of thing, sorry.

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