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From Utopia to Myopia

How the aesthetic pose crippled political thinking.

Russell Jacoby

In 1989 the Ayatollah Khomeini issued death sentences for Salman Rushdie "and all those involved in" the publication of his novel The Satanic Verses. "I call on all zealous Muslims to execute them quickly, wherever they may be found, so that no one else will dare to insult the Muslim sanctities." To encourage the deed, heavenly defenders of the faith offered a cool secular million to the successful assassin or assassins. Rushdie went into seclusion with armed bodyguards, but that didn't help his translators and editors. "In Japan a translator was murdered, in Italy a translator received life-threatening injuries and in Turkey thirty-seven people were killed ... in a terrorist incendiary attack on an editor who published The Satanic Verses in his newspaper," reports William Nygaard, Rushdie's Norwegian publisher, who himself was seriously wounded in an assassination attempt.

The response of western intellectuals to the Rushdie affair was revealing about the current state of our intellectual life. As Robert Hughes put it, "American academics failed to collectively protest." Hughes attributed the neglect to a politically correct relativism, the argument that "what they do in the Middle East is 'their culture.' " Though Hughes's explanation may not be quite on target, he is right to object: the writings on Rushdie by liberal and leftist academics are cautious to a fault. Confronted with sharply etched conflict-a life and death matter-militant intellectuals with supercharged concepts reach for blurry jargon and platitudes. The point is not that intellectuals come out on the wrong side in the Rushdie affair, but that they come out on no side.

This is even true for some of the best and clearest thinkers. Charles Taylor, for example, frets that a Western standard of liberty may be inappropriate in the Rushdie dispute. "It goes without saying that there should be full freedom of publication," Taylor forthrightly states. But in an equally forthright retraction, he tells us: "That applies to us," meaning North Americans and Europeans. In India, Iran, and elsewhere, other imperatives intrude. Perhaps no "abstract principle" of freedom applies. Diverse societies judge diversely what defines blasphemy and heinous insults. To stand above and outside "local conditions" with a single criterion implicitly endorses "the superiority of the West."

"I believe it is misguided to claim to identify culture-independent criteria of harm," he states. Where do these judicious thoughts lead Taylor? Because there is no "universal definition of freedom of expression," he argues, "we are going to have to live with this pluralism.... That means accepting solutions for one country which don't apply in others." Faced with state-sponsored plan to assassinate a novelist, Taylor enters a plea for acceptance and "some degree of understanding." He closes his reflections on Rushdie with mind-numbing clichés: "To live in this difficult world, the western liberal mind will have to learn to reach out more."1

It is downhill from Taylor. Gayatri C. Spivak, the literary theorist and critic, devotes an essay to the Rushdie affair that nimbly avoids any lucidity: "Faced with the case of Salman Rushdie, how are we to read ... ? I have often said, and said again in Chapter Two, that the (tragic) theater of the (sometimes farcically self-indulgent) script of poststructuralism is 'the other side.' " To nail down these statements she juxtaposes the Rushdie controversy with an account of Shahbano, a divorced Indian Muslim woman who sued for financial support from her ex-husband. To Hindu applause, the Indian Supreme Court found in her favor, but Shahbano, in a change of heart, protested the verdict in the name of Islam. To Spivak this involuted case illuminates the Rushdie affair: "Once again I emphasize the implausible connection-by-reversal-the simulated Khomeini as Author and the dissimulated Shahbano marking the place of the effaced trace at the origin: an invocation of a collective support projecting a singular agent filled with divine intention; an invocation of collective resistance displacing a censor patient as cross-hatched by discursivities." This, about a death threat.

Or consider the following typical judgment. In an overview of the controversy about The Satanic Verses, literature professors Vijay Mishra and Bob Hodge summarize a half-dozen discussions of Rushdie and reach the ringing conclusion: "Here is the crux of the matter. The moment the dominant culture itself begins to draw generic lines (fiction, history; politics and postmodern play), the text gets transformed into distinct objects, with distinct effects and meanings. In political terms The Satanic Verses ceases to be post-colonial and becomes postmodern." Even this statement seems too audacious and the authors retreat, noting that another stalwart theorist, "in a suggestive essay," shows how the book is "postmodern and post-colonial at the same time."


PRECISELY because the moral issues are clear, the Rushdie affair throws into sharp relief the dilapidated state of so much contemporary liberal and left thought-above all, its broad retreat from universal principles and emphatic ideas of truth. Take the case of philosopher Richard Rorty, a self-described ironist, who has helped to lead the retreat. He might be called a post "end of ideology" thinker-"post" because he surrenders the liberal ideas championed by thinkers in the 1950s. Though Rorty may believe in liberal ideas and their future, his belief lacks conviction. He cites the socialist Raymond Williams, who praised George Orwell as a man who fought for "human dignity, freedom and peace." "I do not think," writes Rorty, "that we liberals can now imagine a future of 'human dignity, freedom, and peace.' ... We have no clear sense of how to get from the actual world to these theoretically possible worlds and thus no clear idea of what to work for."

For Rorty this state of affairs must be accepted. "It is not something we can remedy by a firmer resolve, or more transparent prose, or better philosophical accounts of man, truth or history. It is just the way things happen to have fallen out."

What remains of the philosophical project for an ironist? Not much. Terms like "just" or "rational" mean little "beyond the language games of one's time." For Rorty, "nothing can serve as a criticism of a final vocabulary save another such vocabulary.... Since there is nothing beyond vocabularies which serve as criterion of choice between them, criticism is a matter of looking on this picture and on that."

There is nothing cynical here: left- liberals like Rorty and Michael Walzer or Charles Taylor or Clifford Geertz are not splenetic debunkers. They appear as open, bemused, tolerant, and thoughtful-and they are. But in severing links to universal categories, they move aesthetic criteria to the fore. Truth recedes before pose. What is worth saying is what sounds interesting or feels sensible or looks provocative. The break from universal and utopian categories leads to aesthetization, an elevation of paradox, irony, and trivia. Interpretations compete on the basis of originality and cleverness.

With half-hearted protests, Rorty and the others say as much. They exchange truth for art appreciation. In Thick and Thin Michael Walzer writes of the eclipse of the "heroic" mode in philosophy, the search for big truths. Rather Walzer calls for the "minimalist" approach where critics respond "in detail, thickly and idiomatically" to ordinary and local events. He suggests that "we ought to understand this effort less by analogy with what philosophers do than by analogy with what poets, novelists, artists, and architects do."

Rorty agrees and tells us that the liberal ironist turns away from "social hope" and "social task" towards "private perfection. " For this approach what counts are novels and enthnologies, areas that "specialize in thick descriptions of the private and idiosyncratic."

The references to "thick descriptions" in Walzer and Rorty allude to the influential anthropologist Clifford Geertz, who has championed the term. "Thick descriptions" are layered portraits of singular events. As an intellectual style, thick description contrasts with ambitious theories addressing broad issues, valuing instead modest observations describing small happenings; it encourages immersion in the stuff of everyday life, giving rise to history and anthropology that has more the feel of literature than cold science.

To illustrate its richness Geertz provides "a not untypical excerpt" from his field journals. His days in the field must have been quite eventful for this typical selection reports a robbery and two murders with a vast cast of Moroccan Jews, Berbers, French troops, and several thousand sheep. For Geertz, the complex events demonstrate that anthropology is an "interpretive activity" akin to literary criticism that requires the classifying of texts. "Here, in our text, such sorting would begin with distinguishing the three unlike frames of interpretation ingredient in the situation, Jewish, Berber, and French."

Anthropology, then, is like literature, an act of interpretation, even imagination. "To construct actor-oriented descriptions of the involvements of a Berber chieftain, a Jewish merchant, and a French solider with one another in 1912 Morocco is clearly an imaginative act, not all that different from constructing similar descriptions of, say, the involvements with one another of a provincial French doctor, his silly, adulterous wife, and her feckless lover in nineteenth century France." Geertz admits some differences. In Madame Bovary the acts may never have happened; in Morocco they are " represented as actual." Nevertheless, that is not crucial. "The conditions of their creation, and the point of it ... differ." But the one is as much a fiction-"a making"-as the other.

The difference between fictional representation and actual representation is not crucial for another reason: the Moroccan events may not have happened. At least Geertz evinces no interest in them as facts. His 1968 field report records a story told by a Jewish merchant, who must have been in his eighties, about some events six decades earlier, prior to World War I. Can this account be fully believed? Even the greenest investigator would raise questions about a story describing murder, robbery, and revenge 60 years ago, but Geertz never inquires whether any other accounts or records confirm these events. Facts are passé. Geertz offers no opinion about the trustworthiness of his informant. For Geertz these questions are immaterial; he has a text, ripe for a thick interpretation.

Like Rorty's, his style exudes a reflective bemusement as he moves from thought as insight to thought as art; he is content to juggle perspectives and savor texts. "There is no general story to be told, no synoptic picture to be had," Geertz writes in his recent intellectual autobiography. "It is necessary, then, to be satisfied with swirls, confluxions, and inconstant connections; clouds collecting, clouds dispersing." What "recommends" or "disrecommends" his own contributions, is "their capacity to lead on to extended accounts which, intersecting other accounts of other matters, widen their implications and deepen their hold."

Geertz's forte is describing unique and specific events. But pulled from the larger context, the particular becomes not art, but spectacle, something to gaze upon. His most famous essay, "Deep Play," on cockfighting in Bali, is a small tour de force, but it is as much a dazzling self-display as a penetrating discussion of its subject-matter. "Early in April of 1958," begins this essay, "my wife and I arrived, malarial and diffident, in a Balinese village we intended, as anthropologists, to study." For Geertz cockfighting is a text, "a Balinese reading of Balinese experience, a story they tell themselves about themselves"-with Geertz, the anthropologist, straining "to read over the shoulders" of the Balinese.

But what does he find? For this diffident observer everything evokes Shakespeare, poetry, and music. The Geertzian anthropologist is an artist who cavorts with perspectives, writes the anthropologist Vincent Crapanzano. To be sure, there is no direct route out of the maze of interpretations; the problem is that Geertz seems happy to wander about. He puts it this way: "The stance of 'well, I, a middle- class, mid-twentieth-century American, more or less standard male, went out to this place, talked to some people I could get to talk to me, and think things are sort of rather this way with them there' is not a retreat, it's an advance."

The advance should not be deprecated. Against a tradition of dreary theorizing, Geertz wandered the byways of Indonesia and Morocco, asking, looking, reflecting. Yet the advance harbored the danger of retreat, the anthropologist content to dabble and amuse, not fathom.

Some years after Geertz finished his field work in Bali, an unsuccessful communist coup led to bloody riots in Indonesia with numerous killings. In his piece on Balinese cockfighting only the last footnote alludes to these events; and Geertz's language turns clumsy, as if the grim political facts mangle his aestheticism. His contorted footnote in the penultimate page of his book referring to the coup, riots, and deaths begins this way: "That what the cockfight has to say about Bali is not altogether without perceptions and the disquiet it expresses about the general pattern of Balinese life is not wholly without reason is attested by the fact that in two weeks of December 1965, during the upheavals following the unsuccessful coup in Djakarta, between forty and eighty thousand Balinese ... were killed, largely by one another."

The point is not to wield the hammer of political reality against efforts to look at small chunks of the world. Tiny fragments can yield the sharpest insights, and expansive overviews can yield the most banal platitudes. The issue with Geertz or Rorty is not the size of the canvas, but the fact that they use it to express their increasingly aesthetic pose.

Nor is this pose uniquely theirs. Literary and aesthetic modes enjoy vast popularity in the social sciences and humanities. In anthropology, history, and English the talk is of tapestries of interpretations, imaginations of texts, the author as subject and poet, dialogic approaches. James Clifford, an anthropologist, writes that a literary and "dialogical" ethnology removes stability and objectivity. Subjectivity is the name of the game. The anthropologist's voice "pervades and situates the analysis, and objective, distancing rhetoric is renounced." The anthropologist does not simply enunciate, but as a writer, participates in the discourse about representation.

The flight from universals to the aesthetic pose cripples political thinking. Leftist thinkers monomaniacally extend the truism that power is powerful to the proposition that power is everything, as if this were a subversive notion. "In this book," goes a typical sentence by two cultural studies practitioners, "we make the scandalous claim: everything in social and cultural life is fundamentally to do with power. Power is at the centre of cultural politics ... We are either active subjects ... or we are subjected to ... others."2

Scandalous claim? This is the wisdom of executive suites and abandoned streets. "Money talks." "The bottom line is." "You're either with us or against us." "It's who you know." The belief engenders a vision of the world of insiders and outsiders, those on top and those on bottom, all beyond good and evil. If history were only the story of contending power cliques, then every chapter would begin with a struggle and end in blood, which is almost the case. Those out-of-power offer the same program as those in-power, except listing different individuals to be shot or imprisoned. That this is a recurring tale does not transform a truth into a critique.

The search for omnipresent power inspires some original research; it also opens the floodgates to demi-scholarship that endlessly rediscovers power. Traditionally political thinking began, not ended, with the recognition of power. Now the fact of power appears as a dazzling insight. The third chapter of Rousseau's Social Contract questioned the "right of the strongest." As Rousseau put it, the phrase is nonsense. "To yield to force is an act of necessity." No arguments need be adduced to hand over your purse to pistol-packing robbers, but where is the right? "If force creates right, the effect changes with the cause: every force that is greater than the first succeeds to its right ... But what kind of right is that which perishes when force fails?"

The ability to distinguish what is and what should be, essential to political thinking, dwindles; the reality of a multifarious domination stuns liberal and leftist thinkers into reiterating platitudes that all categories deceive. A political theorist derides impartiality as a cloak for power. "The idea of impartiality," writes Iris M. Young, "legitimates hierarchical decision-making and allows the standpoint of the privileged to appear as universal." Inasmuch as impartiality is rarely impartial, it never is and should be shelved. All universal categories serve as tools of power in history; since they are not uniformly realized, they are false.

Banal ideas of history supplement banal ideas of power. Critics claim that global intellectual diversity proves that no idea is truer than any other, as if the fact of slavery justified its practice. The late bourgeois mind, Adorno proclaimed, is unable to comprehend validity and genesis in their simultaneous unity and difference. To put this more crudely, the reality that all thought originates somewhere (genesis) does not constitute an argument for its falseness (validity). Nor is something invalid because it is not generally recognized-or because it is misused. This may seem obvious, but left-leaning scholars regularly argue that global power and complexity disprove universals.

To the modern academic, empirical diversity signifies multiple truths; imperialism spawns "universal" truths. Human rights, states an anthropologist Ann-Belinda S. Preis, are "culturally constructed." Observer and observed participate in a complex reality. What does this mean? "There is no objective position from which human rights can be truly measured." And the conclusion? "This ought to fundamentally challenge the current practice of establishing 'human rights records' of particular states (by organizations such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the International Commission of Jurists) because such evaluations are always inherently partial, committed and incomplete."3

One vigilant anti-imperialistic scholar attacks "Western mathematics" as "the secret weapon of cultural imperialism." The reasoning is familiar. While it claims universalism, Western mathematics is a tool of domination and control. "With the assumptions of universality and cultural neutrality," Western mathematics have been "imposed on the indigenous cultures." However, the world has produced other, equally valid systems of computation.

"All cultures have generated mathematical ideas, just as all cultures have generated language, religion, morals, customs and kinship systems." According to Alan Bishop, a professor of education, "alternative mathematical systems" exist; for instance, in Papua New Guinea some six hundred systems of counting have been reported, including finger counting, body pointing, knotted strings, beads and so on. This suggests we should recognize "ethno-mathematics" as a "more localised and specific set of mathematical ideas," outside or against mainstream mathematics.4

The diversity of mathematical and scientific practices across the globe can hardly be challenged. The conclusion that each society can and should have its own unique mathematics can be. Meera Nanda, an Indian science writer, protests the intellectual and political consequences of this position. It undermines cosmopolitanism and encourages dubious politics. She cites Abdus Salam, the Pakistani Nobel Laureate in physics, affirming the universality of science. "There is no such thing as Islamic science, just as there is no Hindu science, no Jewish science, no Confucian science ... nor indeed, 'Western' science."5

Nanda finds that the criticism of scientific universalism reinforces the most retrograde tendencies and groups. Hindu nationalism "in my native India has definitely benefited from the cultural climate in which even supposedly Left-inclined intellectuals and activists tend to treat all liberal and modern ideas as 'Western,' unauthentic, and thus inappropriate for India." She notes "the sad irony" of "the most 'radical,' cutting-edge thinkers in the West giving intellectual ammunition to our nativists."

Vanguard thinkers return to primal ideas, doubting any ideas that go beyond blood and place. Truth becomes "truth"; reason becomes "reason"; human rights "human rights." The quotation marks signify the subjective quality-as said by. Context is everything; truth is nothing.

All "the constituting notions of Enlightenment metanarratives have been exposed," writes a feminist political thinker, Jane Flax, referring to concepts like reason and history. "True and false" are themselves obsolete, since "truth is always contextual." These platitudes enjoy great success. As Luc Ferry and Alain Renaut write of recent French thought, "If the truth must be shattered, if there are no facts but only interpretations, if all references to universal norms are inevitably catastrophic," then what remains but "authenticity ... whatever its content may be?"


YET it must be insisted upon: the universal also has its claims. Even, or exactly, the protest of the individual against a political system taps into universal rights and equalities. Without these universals, which weaken in the face of appeals to localism and authenticity, the opposition crumbles. In the name of universals, the protest not only protests but affirms a world beyond degradation and unhappiness; it hints of utopia.

"What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July?" thundered Frederick Douglass in his 1852 speech, "The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro." "I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham, your boasted liberty, an unholy license ... your shouts of liberty and equality hollow mockery."

This might sound very modern, a ringing attack on "Western" universals as frauds. On closer inspection, however, it is almost the opposite, a denunciation of the reality in the name of the ideas. Douglass damns slavery for betraying the ideas of liberty, not the ideas for betraying African Americans. The denunciation of the Fourth of July as hypocrisy appeals to the idea of equality; it condemns the gap between claim and reality.

Like other abolitionists, Douglass drew "encouragement" from "the great principles" of the Declaration of Independence, and he saw them spreading throughout the world. No longer can "established customs of hurtful character ... do their evil with social impunity.... No abuse, no outrage whether in taste, sport or avarice, can now hide itself from the all-pervading light."6 Fifty years later Emile Zola, protesting Dreyfus' imprisonment, stated, "I have but one desire ... seeing the light, in the name of humanity." All this sounds so naive. What principles? What light? What humanity? We know so much more now: Just ask Salman Rushdie. n

Adapted from The End of Utopia: Politics and Culture in an Age of Apathy, forthcoming from Basic Books.

1 Charles Taylor, "The Rushdie Controversy,"Public Culture 2, no. 1 (1989): 118-122.

2 Glenn Jordan and Chris Weedon, Cultural Politics: Class, Gender, Race and the Postmodern World (Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1995), p. 11.

3Ann-Belinda S. Preis, "Human Rights as Cultural Practice: An Anthropological Critique," Human Rights Quarterly 18, no. 2 (1996): 308.

4 Alan J. Bishop, ÒWestern Mathematics: The Secret Weapon of Cultural Imperialism,Ó Race and Class 32 (October-December 1990): 51-65.

5 The citation is from Abdus Salam's preface (page iv) to Pervez Amirali HoodbhoyÕs Muslims and Science: Religious Orthodoxy and the Struggle for Rationality (Lahore, Pakistan: Vanguard Books, 1991). See pp. 169-187 for an eye-opening account of efforts to establish an "Islamic" science.

6"The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro," July 4, 1852 in Philip S. Foner, The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, vol. 2 (New York: International Publishers, 1950), pp. 181-204.

Originally published in the April/May 1999 issue of Boston Review


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