The New Yorker

    January 15, 2017


    [Stephen Metcalf]

    “In the days leading up to and following the Presidential election, a seemingly prophetic passage from the late philosopher Richard Rorty circulated virally on the Internet. The quote, which was subsequently written about in the Timesand the Guardian and on Yahoo and the Web site for Cosmopolitan magazine, is from his book “Achieving Our Country,” published in 1998. It is worth quoting at length:

    Members of labor unions, and unorganized and unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers—themselves desperately afraid of being downsized—are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.

    At that point, something will crack. The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for—someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots. . . . Once the strongman takes office, no one can predict what will happen. 

    The chilling precision of these words resulted in renewed interest in Rorty, who died in 2007. Eighteen years after its release, “Achieving Our Country” sold out on Amazon, briefly cracking the site’s list of its hundred top-selling books. Harvard University Press decided to reprint it.

    Rorty’s new fans may be surprised, opening their delivery, to discover a book that has almost nothing to do with the rise of a demagogic right and its cynical exploitation of the working class. It is, instead, a book about the left’s tragic loss of national pride. “National pride is to countries what self-respect is to individuals, a necessary condition for self-improvement,” Rorty writes in the book’s opening sentence, before describing in grim detail how the democratic optimism, however qualified, of Walt Whitman, John Dewey, and James Baldwin has been abandoned in favor of what he calls a “blasé” and “spectatorial” left.

    Newcomers to Rorty and “Achieving Our Country” may be surprised on a second count as well. The Times piece about the new interest in the book summarized its argument like so: “In universities, cultural and identity politics replaced the politics of change and economic justice.” This is broadly accurate, but incomplete. Rorty, in “Achieving Our Country,” shows unqualified admiration for the expansion of academic syllabi to include nonwhite and non-male authors, and describes such efforts as one means of awakening students to the “humiliation which previous generations of Americans have inflicted on their fellow citizens.” He adds, without reservation, “Encouraging students to be what mocking neoconservatives call ‘politically correct’ has made our country a far better place.”

    Rorty’s only issue with identity politics was that the left, having worked so hard to transfer stigmatic cruelty away from received categories like race and gender, had done too little to prevent that stigma from landing on class—and that the white working class, finding itself abandoned by both the free-market right and the identity left, would be all too eager to transfer that stigma back to minorities, immigrants, gays, and coastal élites. (Hence the viral prophecy.)

    The principal object of Rorty’s derision was neither identity politics nor the rise of an ignoble free-market right but a peculiar form of decadence, which his larger intellectual project aimed to counter. I knew Rorty a little; he was a shy and gentle man, a red-diaper baby who grew up to be a bird-watcher and a savorer of Proust and Kant in their original languages. But his loathing of the academic left was neither shy nor gentle. The “Foucauldian” left, he writes in “Achieving Our Country,” “represents an unfortunate regression to the Marxist obsession with scientific rigor.” In the specific case of Foucault, this involved locating the “ubiquitous specter” known as “power” everywhere, and conceding that we are without agency in its presence. “To step into the intellectual world which some of these leftists inhabit is to move out of a world in which citizens of a democracy can join forces to resist sadism and selfishness into a Gothic world in which democratic politics has become a farce,” he writes.

    How could Rorty have celebrated the rise of identity politics in the university while also deriding the major trends in critical theory as illiberal and decadent? And how did his exhortation for a renewed national pride connect with his earlier, more technical work on human mentality and the foundations of knowledge? Early in his career, Rorty had been preoccupied by the major questions of modern philosophy as they first arose in the seventeenth century, alongside the rise of experimental science. Is the human mind an object in the world, like all the other objects in the world? Is it, too, universally law-obedient to physics? And, if it is law-obedient, do we lack agency and, like other objects, inherent dignity?

    Instead of solving these problems, Rorty thought we could ditch them, just as Descartes had ditched the problems of thirteenth-century scholasticism, and at a similarly low cost to the progress of human knowledge. The cheerfully non-philosophical way to ditch them was to ignore them, like most healthy people do. The slightly more philosophical method was to notice that people argued from, rather than to, their moral intuitions—an observation that may encourage us to accept that truth is at best a matter of consensus, not an observable fact of the world. The most philosophical way to abandon them was therapeutically: one could relive the philosophical past the same way an analysand relives her emotional past. By drawing, inch by agonizing inch, an unconscious pattern to the surface, one might discard it forever.

    Around the same time Rorty completed his metaphysical therapy, and was reinventing himself as a general-interest writer, his peers in the English department were replacing the categories of mind and world with language and text. They were, in other words, reproducing the epistemological conundrums that had bedeviled modern philosophy since Descartes. Instead of ditching the old neurotic patterns, literary theory repeated them ad nauseum. Problems of knowledge became problems of interpretation. The glamour of its European intellectualism aside, this meant only that literary theory knocked back and forth between the assertion that nothing can be known—versions of this skepticism are found in Descartes, Hume, Berkeley, and Kant—and the assertion that skepticism can be vanquished when knowledge is reconstructed upon a new foundation.

    Foucault rode this line perfectly. He said that all knowledge was inherently unstable, because it was historically contingent, and he built a new way of knowing around the master term “power.” The primal Foucauldian move is to locate abstract and universal rights, reason, and the notion of the human within concrete social practices, and show how they were coercive or hypocritical—or sadistic—from the start. The perfect symbol for liberal modernity is a prison, as governed by a panopticon, an instrument of universal surveillance. Point taken; but Rorty believed that, in addressing more or less all of humanity as his fellow-prisoners, Foucault was being decadent, and not simply because he was weakening the distinction between metaphorical and actual inmates. Foucault made seeing, or, really, seeing through, into a revolutionary activity, while implying that only an apocalyptic transformation in human thought might liberate us.

    Foucault was a great philosopher. He worked tirelessly on behalf of prison reform for actual prisoners, and he was as canny as anyone about his own epistemological biases. Rorty and Foucault were, however, as temperamentally antithetical as two human beings can be. From intellectual habits that Rorty distrusted, Foucault moved on to a belief that Rorty detested. After exposing liberalism as a lie, Foucault then asserted that illiberalism was true to our nature. At times a fairly vulgar Nietzschean, he insisted that the substrate of our common reality, however we might suppress it, was cruelty. Shame is our hidden essence; the ugliest part of a thing is its truest part; being decent or kind or liberal is a sign of self-suppression or weakness; cynicism is knowledge. Here, the various tributaries of American nihilism flow into one another; a knowing passivity that regards cynicism as political courage leads to the rejection of liberal democracy on a juvenile dare. It was against just this sort of foolishness that Rorty wrote ‘Achieving Our Country.'”


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