The Last Critique Should Be The First


The April 2004 Harper’s features a splendid essay called “The Last Critique” by Bruno Latour, a French sociologist and anthropologist. An edited version of a speech he gave at Stanford last year and originally published in Critical Inquiry, the essay expresses alarm over the marginalization of the academy. “What has become of the critical spirit? Has it run out of steam?”, asks Latour. The weapons the Left has deployed to de-fetishize and denaturalize have been appropriated by the enemy. Using a metaphor germane to the times, Latour compares their ‘weapons’ as having been smuggled across ‘fuzzy’ borders into the hands of terrorists. The ‘terrorists’ are discernibly Right-leaning; he locates one of them in the current administration, quoting Republican strategist Frank Luntz’ outrageous but characteristically fraudulent spinning of global warming.

He calls for his fellow social scientists to take up arms against the nefarious mis-use of Leftist intellectual critiques. Relativism is not as pure as the neocons claim. There is a middle ground, he says, between what he calls fact and ‘fairy’: objective, ineluctable forces in nature on one hand and the illusions we have about nature on the other. The world is neither made up of a set of truths waiting to be illuminated, nor is it an inescapable prison of lies. Both are complacencies of thought and must be rejected. Latour notes the corruption of the academy:

Entire Ph.D. programs are running to ensure that good American kids learn facts are made up, that there is no such thing as natural, unmediated, unbiased access to truth, that we are always prisoners of language, that we always speak from a particular standpoint, and so on, while dangerous extremists are using the very same arguments to destroy hard-won evidence that could saver our lives.

Later he continues in this vein:

I have always fancied that what took great effort, cost a lot of sweat and money for people such as Nietzsche and Benjamin, can now be had for nothing, much like the supercomputers of the 1950s, which used to fill large halls and expand vast amounts of electricity but are now accessible for a dime and no bigger than a fingernail.

The fact that Latour’s self-critique seems original to him, and may indeed seem so to many readers, illustrates an interesting problem. Indeed, there is something awesome about his admission of failure, a “have we gone too far” hesitation that sounds a little like Oppenheimer’s doubts about the atomic bomb. Yet either observation is readily available in Allan Bloom’s The Closing of The American Mind, published almost twenty years ago. One of the central theses of that book is that the academy has failed undergraduates in this country by razing the highest philosophical peaks into grasslands that even the tenderest feet can trod. Postmodernism and pop culture have merged in the single blade cutting the Gordian knot of philosophy and politics, releasing today’s students from the burden of finding ‘unbiased access to truth’. Bloom discusses Nietzsche at length (and Heidegger’s appropriation of his writings), tracing the infection of American universities by the virus of German relativism, and concludes that American students enjoy “nihilism, American style”—“nihilism without the abyss.”

In the last few years Bloom has come under fire from the Left for his mentoring of several of the hated neocons in Washington, namely Paul Wolfowitz. Even more vitriol has been shot at Bloom’s mentor at the University of Chicago, Leo Strauss. They have been cast as Machiavellian schemers clutching copies of Republic and Discourses as they whisper instructions into the ear of the fanatical religious right that has come to power in the United States. I have read many of the attempts to discredit Strauss and Bloom, and besides the shrill unleashing of groundless and ill-informed accusations, the pieces have all had a common hostility to the Great Books tradition which the two intellectuals championed.

Some cases stand out. The website Counterpunch, which I have always admired for its politics but at times loathed for the amateurism of some of its writers, featured an analysis of Plato that concluded that he was the godfather of fascism. (This was attempted in an essay that wouldn’t have earned a ‘C’ in freshman comp let alone convinced anyone of its philosophical rigor.) Lyndon LaRouche’s website boasted a tabloid-style outing of Strauss which made him out to be a proto-Nazi, the esoteric elitist marching under the banner of Machiavelli and Nietzsche to undermine American democracy. Clearly Bloom and Strauss are meant to be seen as dangerous men of the Right whose encouragement of reading certain texts constitutes so many serpents coiled around so many apples.

Yet Bloom was right, and right long before Latour (by nearly twenty years). Stigmatized as a conservative saboteour, however, Bloom has been mostly ignored by the Left, along with most of the ‘canonical’ texts with which he tries to educate us (seen anyone reading Emile lately?). “Traditional” intellectual capital has been made off limits by the Left, quarantined as dangerous remnants leftover from a dark age now thankfully past. Thinkers like Plato, Machiavelli and Rousseau are not to be touched because they have been used as weapons by the enemies of justice. The Enlightenment is strictly taboo. But borrowing Latour’s metaphor, can we not regard them as the right weapons smuggled across the border into the wrong hands?

Although it may be a banal example, I can think of no finer manifestation of this than my subscription to The Library of America series. The LOA is a collection of handsomely bound editions of all the major literary figures in American history, from Franklin to Nabokov. The series is particularly strong in writers roughly contemporaneous with the former; a number of the editions I’ve received have been volumes of Paine, Washington, Jefferson, and Adams, and collections of essays on the framing of the Constitution. In fact, I signed up with LOA largely because they offered the last as an attractive two-volume set. Seemed a good bargain, and it was.

LOA sold my name to a mailing list used by “likeminded” presses. Hardly surprising, given the dire straits publishers are in. Consider the mailing lists on which my name now appears, though. Some are academic presses like Yale and Chicago. Others are of a more partisan flavor. Several times a month, in addition to my LOA volume, I have been getting catalogs and postcards from one muckraking right wing press after another. The milder publishers simply send catalogs filled proudly and exclusively with Dead White European Males. The brassier outfits like to send mailers that show off (in bright tabloid fonts) ‘self-incriminating’ quotes from Democrats like Jesse Jackson and Bill Clinton. Inside I typically find an invitation to ‘fight against the takeover of the liberals’ with the purchase of the usual jeremiads by Ann Coulter and Bill O’Reilly.

All of this because I wanted to read about the origins of the Constitution? Did I accidentally tap into the "great right-wing conspiracy" in our country? Were the new recruits being won over through the mail? But of course the same kind of intellectual profiling would have occurred had I ordered a book by Chomsky or Foucault.

It’s astonishing how divided the world of politics and letters has become. The Western intellectual tradition seems to have been set against more recent thinkers as it were an enemy army, in spirit rather like the battles Swift wrote of so memorably. And as in a war, crossing over to the other side is tantamount to desertion. If the Leftist press is to be believed, averring the principles of a liberal and also reading Strauss is akin to a Christian sacrificing she-goats in honor of Lucifer. But to assign philosophers and artists to political camps is to stop us from discovering what truths they can offer us.

For example, those railing against Plato and his influence in men like Bloom and Strauss ought to read Plato's text more closely. Although in Republic he argues for the philosopher-king and the noble lie, he acknowledged the idea's impracticality. As Bloom argued in his translation, Plato's ideal government was democracy, messy as it is, although he made his actual conclusion apparent only to the most careful readers. Elsewhere, in Letter VI, Plato writes of a doubtful, almost Utopian purity:

I [am] forced to say, in praise of true philosophy, that from her height alone was it possible to discern what the nature of justice is, either in the state or in the individual, and that the ills of the human race would never end until either those who are sincerely and truly lovers of wisdom come to political power, or the rulers of our cities, by the grace of God, learn true philosophy.

Should our readings of Plato be colored by our politics? Should my reading of Strauss be colored by what he may or may not have favored privately, or by the actions of his students? It disturbs me that Bloom was an unhesitating supporter of Gulf War I, but at the same time I believe that an even halfway attentive examination of The Closing of The American Mind yields an abundance of signs that Bloom would have—or ought to have—disapproved of the current fiasco in Iraq. Wolfowitz was only tangentially connected to Strauss, though more directly to Bloom. In any case, with some simple research one can see where Wolfowitz follows his mentors, ancient and modern, and where he departs from them. One can do this because, fortunately, the original books are still there, waiting to be explored. This was Strauss’s most basic lesson.

My objection to Leftist intellectuals is that to read them is to confine oneself to the ghetto of posts: poststructuralism, postmodernism, posthistorical. Latour is brave to admit his shortcomings, and what he rightly urges us to do is return to the centers of our thought and recover the fruitful lines of questioning that may yet bring health to our diseased democracy. Enticing, except the problem is not that ‘additive’ or ‘positive’ critiques aren’t being made, but that they are not being heard. For all of Latour’s honorable handwringing, the problem can be stated more simply: the Left needs to acquire a new arsenal of weapons with which to fight back. Fortunately we have them already. They're the same as the old ones. The fountainhead of Western thought serves our cause better than theirs, and may yet liberate us from the great errors of our age. The timely critiques we need already exist. The real question is, why aren’t we listening?

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