15 responses to “Should the left declare a moratorium on theory? w/ Richard Rorty

  1. Talk about shooting yourself in the foot, more like aiming a fun at your head. Pragmatism has bothered me for a long time now. It’s emphasis on what “works” and the “cash-value” of a theory, as well as the inability to think past the subject/object dichotomy, has led to a short-term focus on practice and a disavawal of the aspects of theory that stimulate the imagination. Marxists are all too willing to pick up the slack and rehash its utopian images of fully communist or non-hierarchical societies, which most people understand lead to totalitarian command economies with the experience of communist societies in the twentieth century. I think there is reason to believe that this pragmatist bent has led to the “lesser evilism” in leftist politics.

    When Postmodernism or Post-structural theory is invoked in many left circles, rarely does it get beyond “head in the cloud” images of academics disengaged from reality. And yet, look at the philosophy section in bookstores and you see these books populating the bookshelves. People are clamoring for these new directions in thought.

  2. Theory is another morphine ampoule, another comfort blanket, another way of distracting, sublimating, facing up while facing away. If it helps theorists, if it gives them a hard-on or makes life a little more bearable, or it makes them laugh, or it lets them forget the oncoming collapse of climate, cities, nation-states, classes, all those comfy things, bodies, minds, whatever you care to name, then let them have it. At any rate, what is the left except a stale encrusting of the very worst and very whitest of abstractions. I think on SZ we prefer things down in the mud where names get picked up, hurled around but they sure as hell don’t stick.

    • I’m a fan of many forms of expression including theory but am pained by those who confuse (or more often than not substitute) such waxing philosophical/speculative for political activity/engagement. More interesting to me is how to think thru more direct actions so as to avoid the tyranny of the means and try to adjust our practices as needed, or in other words something not so different from what folks like John Dewey and Jane Addams were working towards.

    • But don’t you think theory has the ability to turn people’s attention Towards the coming collapses and help prevent them? I kind of thought Synthetic Zero was aiming for that…

      The thing is, intellectuals (even stuffy academics) have had an enormous impact on history. Their ideas have led to party-forming, their language adopted in constitutions, etc. If we turn our backs on new concepts and take a hard stance against this image of Theory (capital T), then old ones will simply be recycled. While not being a direct ‘touching’ influence on the make-up of power relations, theories allow us to see our societies and forces working on and against us in a different light. Even people who engage in direct action and put themselves in the line of fire have basic justifications to answer the question “why are you doing this?”, which are very often crafted in theoretical discussions and/or reflection.

      To abandon theory is to abandon discourse to the neoliberal economists. We might not like the left-right distinction, but I much prefer my academics to be anti-imperialist than cheerleaders and strategists for it.

      • sure, as i said i enjoy theory like art and such but think how much time and effort that could
        have been spent getting into the fray has been wasted on merely academic exercises, for example how much whining about neo-liberalism vs organizing against it, they are by and large toothless…

        • Agreed, but some people’s talents just lie with making good arguments and getting people through tough times and out with resolve. Keeping up the good fight takes convincing voices, also a good understanding of what we’re up against. Strategy and Theory often make bedfellows.

      • My stance on theory doesn’t preclude any of what you’re describing- it just denies that that is its primary function in certain cases, whilst in the sz case that is clearly what it is all about- I’m pretty sure sz was formed on the basis of a shared understanding that everything humans do is an attempt to cope. Certainly I think meta-theory can be boiled down to this statement. I don’t think I have ever said anything except this, over and over again, like some kind of degenerative loop.

        • I would certainly deny that theory holds a primary function. I tend to think a popular or (in)famous intellectual operates like a jurist-priest/mystic on the broader population (followers… subscribers to his name +ism). This is quite a power though, and I would not want to abandon that power to far-right think tanks and Ayn Rand and you know where I’m going with that. It is a preference and not a foundational theory, that I can always go back to in times of distress and make sure all of my conversations end up there, but what I’m thinking of when I write ‘theory’, is not exhausted by that teleological-foundational pole. Different forces can pick up a technique for power and repurpose it: there is an art to a good work of theory. I tend to understand philosophy with Deleuze – creating concepts, getting involved with everything because everything is interesting to me, making as adequate expressions as I can make, putting everything on a consistent plane…

          We can be allied with the Left as intellectuals (one could be) without a universalist reason to do so. That last sentence has been a kind of limit for the moral left and the black hole of nihilism in philosophy. I have a gut reaction to people who peddle lies and those who dominate others entire lives and I think this comes from a place of life affirmation. Life has got to be exciting and enjoyable, that is, in opposition to a world controlled by a cabal of market and/or labor parasites, but we don’t all have to write an essay to justify exactly why.

            • Yes. Theory from the euro-tradition has a major* tendency to go from reason to reason, all the way down to a ground. But I would place theory on the same plane with those writings that push further. Anti-dominance itself rests on something, but an embodied life keeps pushing…

      • And there again you hit the nail on the head… you prefer your academics to be lefties. It is preference. there is no reason for why you should prefer this that could be argued normatively in the final instance, although I’m sure we’re all quite adept at giving reasons, and of course I am an anarchist organizer myself, I’m quite good at giving such reasons, my chief reason being ethical- the alleviation/elimination of suffering. But there is no honest to God Reason for this except that I prefer not to be in pain and, given that my neurosocial development has been adequate to it, I am plugged into empathetic capacities and so extend the desire to reduce suffering not just to myself and immediate others, although that is certainly where it is felt most strongly, but to ALL sentient-sapient others, all others I know, cognitively, to be capable of suffering. So what? What does it mean? If I run up against a psychopath how could I use my reasons to explain the sense I have? I couldn’t.

        Someone put that question to us on sz once: why prefer Palestine to Israel? why prefer postcapitalism to capitalism? and if you’re looking for a good god damn normative answer capable of justifying itself within its own normative, or some meta-normativity, i can’t. All I can say is that I am the kind of organism that given the conditions and adaptive responses to those conditions. In the end this is what every revolutionary who has really been a revolutionary has known: it is at the core of all arguments for Terror and revolutionary self-defence, it is the point at which these two opposed places meet: really, let’s tell the truth here babez, we’re all about killing the ones who are not like us…but our community of “us” is broadest, less partial, and so, we think, universal and therefore trumps all the rest. Really?

  3. I agree that pragmatism is toothless, bound to serve the status quo. I also think paying leftwing academics to let ingroup rivalry and ambition mutate their discourse into something bound to alienate electorates assures that ‘theory’ primarily serves invested interest. Political theories are like toothbrushes; nobody wants to use anyone elses’, so the process of speciation and proliferation continues apace. Much the same can be said about ‘serious art.’

    ACADEMIA is the fucking problem, here. They say ‘masses’, and the masses hear ‘rabble’ – and they’re right. Theory is mostly pious confectionary, an indulgence of aesthetes. Anyone genuinely interested in mobilizing for change is in the business of reaching out. All we do is suck on chocolates we can scarce taste, and congratulate ourselves for the moral courage of our keyboards. Small wonder we’re so popular with other cowards.

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